MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This summer a lot of you probably packed the car and hit the highway, or maybe you stood shoeless in airport security lines. In the future, President Obama wants all Americans to have the option of high-speed rail.

President BARACK OBAMA: Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.

BLOCK: Well, the Obama administration is beginning that project. Within the next month, the administration will start handing out $8 billion in stimulus funds to high-speed rail projects around the country. All this week, we'll be examining the potential for and doubts about high-speed rail in America.

Today, NPR's David Schaper reports on the administration's vision.

DAVID SCHAPER: People have been talking about high speed rail in the U.S. for decades, but there's never been much more than talk. Long time advocates for high speed rail say for years their jobs had been…

Mr. ANDY KUNZ (President, High Speed Rail Association): Somewhat frustrating in that there just wasn't any support coming from the federal government.

SCHAPER: That's Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association - a group that was just created this summer after President Obama announced his plan to put $8 billion into high-speed rail with a billion more to follow each year for five years.

Mr. KUNZ: That was certainly the most that's ever been put in one single shot for any rail system in America, no less high-speed rail.

SCHAPER: The Obama administration says high speed trains between cities less than 600 miles apart can change the way we live by reducing highway and airport congestion, pollution and American dependence on foreign oil. And they say tens of thousands of jobs would be created, which was what the stimulus is all about after all.

Secretary RAY LAHOOD (Department of Transportation): Because the people want it.

SCHAPER: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says there is tremendous public and political consensus behind investing in high-speed rail.

Mr. LAHOOD: Anybody that's ever traveled in France or Spain or Japan or China and has ridden a 200-mile-an-hour train comes back to America scratching their head, saying, why don't we have high-speed rail?

SCHAPER: The answer to that question LaHood says is that passenger rail service has never been a transportation priority in Washington, especially since the 1950s when President Eisenhower began building the interstate highway system.

Mr. LAHOOD: The signing of the highway bill promoted people getting into cars and driving all over the country. The reason that other countries have high-speed rail is because their government promoted high-speed rail.

SCHAPER: Now there is suddenly enormous interest in getting high-speed trains in almost every part of the country, with 40 states of the District of Columbia initially requesting more than $100 billion for high-speed-rail projects, even though the administration has just that $8 billion to give out. LaHood acknowledges what the administration is spending is a small down payment. The full cost of building high-speed rail, even just in the ten corridors the administration has identified, would reach into the hundreds of billions of dollars. And there are serious questions about spending that kind of money on this mode of transportation in a country with a strong car culture.

Mr. SAM STALEY (Reason Foundation): I do not think it's a wise investment in the U.S.

SCHAPER: Sam Staley of the libertarian Reason Foundation says the promised environmental, economic and other benefits of high-speed rail are overblown. He says too few people will get out of their cars and off of planes and onto trains to make it worth the staggering cost.

Mr. STALEY: Forecasts for both cost and ridership are notoriously unreliable.

SCHAPER: High-speed rail advocates dispute such criticisms and argue there are plenty of travelers who would choose high-speed trains over driving or flying, especially to destinations 100 miles to 500 miles away. Some people waiting for flights at Chicago's O'Hare Airport agree.

Ms. CHRISTINE JUROWICZ(ph): I would love to see train travel enjoy a renaissance.

SCHAPER: Christine Jurowicz says she doesn't fly often and would prefer to be able to speed around the Midwest on a train.

Ms. JUROWICZ: I like the idea. I would like to go to places like St. Louis or Iowa - some place in Iowa, and Milwaukee, much faster, then Greyhound.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JUROWICZ: …or driving.

SCHAPER: Her daughter, Hannah Jurowicz, who is on her way to Los Angeles and ultimately South Korea, where she studies and teaches, says she often rides high-speed trains there and she says she would love to have that option in the U.S. over the crowded airports.

Ms. HANNAH JUROWICZ: You have to get here so early, and I don't really like coming to the airport and checking in. And yeah, it would be great to do a rail, I would do it.

SCHAPER: Missy Arendez(ph) of suburban Spring Grove, Illinois, also thinks high-speed trains could be a viable option for some trips.

Ms. MISSY ARENDEZ: I think it's a good idea, it's all a trade-off between cost and time spent traveling. But on a shorter trip, if it's feasible to get there in a couple of hours and you don't have to deal with the airport and it's significantly cheaper, it's a decent alternative, I think.

SCHAPER: But Arendez points out her round trip ticket to Kansas City cost just $120, so even bullet trains making that trip in three to four hours would have to be quite a bit cheaper to get her off of this inexpensive one hour flight. Which raises the question: How fast will this new commitment to high-speed rail really get trains zipping from city to city. The answer is maybe only as fast as trains used to go.

Mr. NICK KALLAS (Executive Director, Illinois Railway Museum): This is the twin cities that were built in 1936…

SCHAPER: Nick Kallas is the executive director of the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, about 50 miles northwest of Chicago, where there are trains from every era of America's railroading past, including this old but still gleaming Burlington Zephyr.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Mr. KALLAS: Just got a lot straight through…

SCHAPER: Stopping at the lounge car, Kallas describes the luxurious ride of the Zephyr as like floating on air.

Mr. KALLAS: Hundred miles an hour up the Mississippi river.

SCHAPER: In fact, many passenger trains in the '30s and '40s routinely hit speeds of 100 to 120 miles an hour, sometimes higher. Today, only one Amtrak train is capable of toping those speeds. That's the Acela in the northeast corridor. It can hit 150 but only over a relatively short stretch of track. The Acela averages about 80 miles an hour between Washington, D.C., New York and Boston. Aging track, outdated signals and safety regulations limit most other Amtrak trains to not more than 79 miles an hour. Most of the initial projects vying for the eight billion in federal high-speed rail funding are aiming for something more like medium speeds, 90 to 110 miles an hour. The same speeds of 70 years ago.

Mr. KUNZ: In a way, we're going backwards. If, you know, that's all that we set our target for.

SCHAPER: Andy Kunz of the High Speed Rail Association says to really make trains a much more viable alternative to planes and automobiles, there needs to be a national high speed rail system averaging 200 miles an hour. But some experts say for high-speed rail to gain a foothold in the travel market place, the trains really don't have to go that fast right away. Incremental upgrades in speeds are fine, says Joe Schwieterman, transportation professor at Chicago's DePaul University. But he says it is critical that the administration initially fund projects that can become high-speed rail showcases.

Professor JOE SCHWIETERMAN (Professor of Transportation, DePaul University): To make rail a major part of the equation is going to take, you know, years of proving to the public that this mode is here. And that's where the one ten service really can serve to clear the way. The public sees it work. They see the ridership. They see the trains. They see the advantages. Then, that second phase of investment can happen.

SCHAPER: Schwieterman and others say developing a true high-speed rail system could well take decades.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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