USA: Incremental improvements to permit more frequent and reliable passenger services are more important in revitalising the inter-city rail sector than developing a national network of 320 km/h trains, according to Amtrak President & CEO Joseph Boardman. Testifying before the Illinois House Railroad Industry Committee on May 11, Boardman emphasised that ‘it’s really not about the speed. It’s about reduced travel times.’

Noting that 175 km/h would still be twice the national road speed limit, Boardman emphasised that ‘the competitive advantage is with the train.’ He backed the local Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, which envisages a nine-state network of inter-city routes radiating from Chicago, where trials have demonstrated the feasibility of faster operation on conventional routes.

However, to achieve competitive journey times investment is needed to modernise track and signalling, eliminate congestion and reduce conflicts between freight and passenger trains. Amtrak Chairman Tom Carper pointed out that ‘the key to going fast is not to go slow’, and adding that on some routes getting the average speed up to 65 km/h ‘would be a big improvement’.

Boardman is keen to damp down speculation about a national high speed network, suggesting that the country is simply too big. Instead, the focus should be on regional networks or corridors linking the major cities up to 700 km apart, comparable with many routes in Europe.

Plans for dedicated high speed lines have been floated in several states, and the Texas Senate has recently approved legislation to develop a high speed network as a public-private venture. Most advanced at present is the 1 300 km network in California, for which voters approved a first tranche of bond funding last November.

On May 7 the California High Speed Rail Authority board approved three projects that could be underway by 2012, making them eligible for federal funding under the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act. These include construction of the Los Ange­les - Anaheim and San Francisco - San Jose segments, plus land acquisition for Merced – Bakersfield and the maintenance depot. ‘California’s system is well ahead of every other high speed train project in the country and should be a leading candidate to receive stimulus funding’, said Chsra Chairman Quentin Kopp.