RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
High gas prices earlier this year meant more people started looking for alternative ways to get around, and mass transit ridership in the country got one of the biggest boosts in decades. That means subways and buses - and to a lesser degree - trains, which are really popular on the East Coast; not nearly as efficient or ubiquitous in other parts of the country. Three years ago, President Obama laid out a plan to try to change that.
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.
MARTIN: Today, there are a few Amtrak trains going that fast. But as NPR's David Schaper reports, for the most part, the president's plans for high-speed trains have slowed considerably.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: I'm riding on Amtrak's Wolverine service, which goes from Chicago to Ann Arbor, then to Detroit and Pontiac. We're somewhere in southwest Michigan, speeding along at over 100 miles an hour, and this train is about to hit a speed milestone.
MARK MAGLIARI: Now cruising at 110 miles per hour in the Amtrak Michigan district. We're being pulled today by two General Electric locomotives...
SCHAPER: That's Amtrak's spokesman Mark Magliari announcing the fastest speed of any U.S. train outside of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. It is quite a feat, even though the trains are only able to go that fast over about a 90-mile portion of the trip.
JOE SZABO: But it's got to be viewed as only a beginning.
SCHAPER: Joe Szabo is administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. He says additional track and signal improvements are underway to help speed up trains throughout the Midwest.
SZABO: And so in the next two, two-and-a-half years, you're going to see almost 80 percent of Chicago-Detroit and almost 80 percent of Chicago-St. Louis at sustained speeds of 110 miles per hour.
SCHAPER: That would reduce travel times on those routes to under four hours, making the train faster than driving and competitive with flying, says Szabo. Both the Michigan and Illinois routes are benefiting from other states turning down high-speed rail funds. The Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida sent back hundreds of millions of dollars in stimulus funding, arguing that few people would ride the trains, so their states would have been on the hook for millions in operating subsidies. So, that makes Michigan's Republican Governor Rick Snyder an outlier of sorts because he sees spending on high-speed rail as a wise investment. Here's Michigan transportation director Kirk Steudle.
KIRK STEUDLE: Our folks in Michigan are looking for it. They're interested, they want to ride it. As I said, the ridership numbers are going up and it proves that passenger transportation is a very viable option in Michigan for the corridor between Detroit and Chicago.
SCHAPER: Amtrak says it had a record number of riders nationwide last year. And with gas prices still relatively high, the rail service is on track for another record year. But it's hardly smooth sailing for fast trains in this country.
KEN ORSKI: Increasing top speeds to 110 mph does not necessarily make a high-speed rail service.
SCHAPER: Ken Orski is a former top U.S. Department of Transportation official and now publishes a transportation newsletter. And he says what really counts is the average speed over an entire trip, and that's where Amtrak has trouble. Since most Amtrak trains run on freight railroad tracks, freight train backups often cause lengthy Amtrak delays. And the poor condition of some stretches of the leased track can slow passenger trains to just 20 to 25 mph until repairs can be made. Orski says high-speed rail works best in densely populated corridors between cities only a few hundred miles apart, such as the Northeast corridor between Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
ORSKI: And that is where the administration should have focused its efforts, rather than scatter $10 billion on some 140 projects in 32 states.
SCHAPER: That $10 billion mostly came from the stimulus package three years ago, and a big chunk of it went to California, which is developing a 200-mile an hour high-speed rail service between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It's a project many experts say shows some promise, but its ballooning cost and planning problems lead some critics to call it the train to nowhere. Congress has for now put on the brakes on funding for high-speed rail, but high-speed rail advocates say if Amtrak can at least get enough funding to keep making improvements, that might whet the appetite for greater rail spending in the future. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.