Rail Bill Is Rolling, But Slowly

After 16 months of stalls and stops, scaled-down high-speed rail legislation may actually pass Congress

The high-speed rail bill is back on track, but it's late getting into the station and it's lost some steam along the way.

A weak version of the $1.3 billion high-speed rail authorization bill that was introduced over a year ago is on its way to a House/Senate conference.

Though the idea of high-speed rail has been around a while, many saw the billion-dollar authorization as a signal the federal government and U.S. cities and states were ready to invest money and resources in the technology, which holds a number of opportunities for aerospace, defense and manufacturing companies.

But as it stands now, most of the preliminary dollars appear headed for think tanks and consultants. The revised bill has removed the implementation portion of the measure and focuses mostly on studies, but will include at least $70 million for new technologies.

High-speed rail planning activities and technology development will split between $169 million (the Senate allocation) and $184 million (the House award) over three years. Private industry will be directly eligible for the $70 million expected to be set aside for development of high-speed rail technologies.

But which technologies the bill will support is not clear. The House language favors "steel wheel" technology, which would make magnetically levitated (known as maglev) trains ineligible for funds. The Senate's measure leaves it up to states to decide which technological solution would best meet their needs.

Companies like Northrop Grumman that are designing maglev trains worry that research funding for this technology will be excluded from the bill, said Steve Sutton, Northrop Grumman's director for congressional relations.

Maryland's Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski recently sent a letter to Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., recommending the Senate draft its version without discriminating among technologies. Mikulski also noted she doesn't want the Northeast Corridor, the Washington D.C.-New York-Boston route where the nation's fastest trains already run, to be excluded from funding - a proviso both measures include.

"This corridor...carries half of Amtrak's total ridership and brings in half of its total revenue," she wrote. "Neglecting this corridor would only result in an inefficient distribution of resources in our national rail system."

Amtrak has been allocated funds from the Transportation Department budget to automate the railways from Washington, D.C., to Boston. But Phyllis Wilkins of Maryland Economic Growth Associates -- part of the state's Chamber of Commerce -- argues that Amtrak's plan won't bring maglev trains, which she says are faster and safer, to the country's most densely populated region.

Moreover, the corridor is only high-speed from Washington to New Haven, Conn. North of there, Amtrak trains must switch from fast diesels to electric trains that draw power from overhead lines.

Wilkins said the Northeast needs research money too, so it can start planning for a maglev system. Maglev trains, which Germany and Japan have demonstrated but America invented, cruise as fast as 300 miles per hour on a special track. Steel-wheel technologies reach about 150 miles per hour or more, but are cheaper than maglevs because they do not require new track beds.

White House support for maglev research has come to a screeching halt. Maglev research lost its fiscal 1994 Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act funding when the Clinton administration shifted the $20 million to California earthquake relief and other programs. And the administration requested no congressional funds for maglev development in fiscal year 1995.

The High Speed Rail/Maglev Association in Alexandria, Va., represents supporters of both maglev and steel-wheel rail technologies. Joseph Vranich, its oft-quoted president, said he is happy to see any bill get through Congress in this time of shrinking budgets. Vranich said his group will now concentrate on getting high-speed rail implementation money included in the ISTEA II legislation, to be considered in 1996.

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