Widespread high-speed rail service, last seen in the U.S. during the Hoover administration (when passenger trains ran faster than they do today), stands ready for its comeback. Last November California voters approved a $10-billion bond toward a rail system that will move passengers the 432 miles between San Francisco and Los Angeles in just over two and a half hours. The federal stimulus package sets aside $8 billion to jump-start rail projects around the country, and the Obama administration has pledged another $1 billion a year for the next five years for high-speed rail.

Infatuations with high-speed rail systems have come to the U.S. before, of course—most recently, Texas and Florida trumpeted regional plans, only to abandon them after a few years. But advocates now see a difference. "It's more than plans this time, it's money," says James RePass, chair of the National Corridors Initiative.

In its quest to build a 21st-century rail network, the U.S. will rely on 20th-century technology. Magnetically levitated trains such as the 19-mile-long Shanghai Transrapid are not under serious consideration. Rather advocates see a potential for systems like those in Japan and Europe, where simple improvements such as dedicated track lines and overhead electrification allow trains to regularly exceed 180 miles per hour. The Japanese Shinkansen (“bullet”) trains, for example, average 132 mph between Tokyo and Osaka, a distance of 320 miles. Spain’s recently completed AVE line between Madrid and Barcelona covers 386 miles in under three hours; since it started service in February 2008, air travel between the two cities has dropped an estimated 30 percent.

The U.S. is too large to have train service connect the entire country the way it does in Spain and Japan. Instead the U.S. Department of Transportation wants to nurture the development of regional networks. The blueprint is the Northeast corridor, in which Amtrak’s Acela Express runs from Boston to New York City and down to Washington, D.C., at an average speed of 80 mph—“high speed” only if one is inclined to grade on a curve. That is fast enough, though, to entice riders concerned about airport delays and highway traffic: Amtrak estimates that the line carries 36 percent of all rail-air traffic between New York and Washington.

Other regions ideal for a high-speed rail network—in which cities are too distant to make driving convenient and too close to make a flight worthwhile—include the Dallas–San Antonio–Houston triangle, the Floridian triad of Orlando-Tampa-Miami, the upper Midwest Milwaukee-Chicago–St. Louis corridor, and northern and southern California. The federal dollars will go to projects in 10 intrastate regions such as these, connecting cities that are between 100 and 600 miles apart.

A prime goal of these regional networks will be to alleviate travel congestion. In California, for example, a growing population will require an extra 3,000 miles of highway lanes, five large airport runways and 91 airport gates by 2030—improvements that would cost an estimated $100 billion. “That will not happen,” says Quentin Kopp, chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority. “There will be a necessity, a transportation necessity, of using something besides our automobiles.”

Yet high-speed rail faces tougher challenges in the U.S. than it does in Japan or Europe. The modern geography of the U.S. is based on the Interstate Highway System, and driving here is far cheaper than in other countries. For instance, drivers pay about $90 in tolls during that one-way trip from Tokyo to Osaka, on top of $6.50 a gallon for gas. (The economics may become worse for cars if the U.S. puts a price on carbon—trains are 28 percent more efficient than passenger vehicles on a passenger-per-mile basis.)

In addition, most rail lines in the U.S. are primarily used for freight, and federal regulations, combined with industry practice, discourage passenger trains from exceeding 110 mph on track that freight trains also use. Moving faster than 125 mph requires a rail line akin to a highway—no intersections with road traffic at any point. Hence, true high-speed rail will require miles of new track, elevated above (or sunken below) existing roads, on newly acquired land that cuts the straightest line from A to B. All told, the tab might run from $40 million to $65 million per mile. Although some of the federal money will help start projects with this level of ambition, the rest will be used for more prosaic track and signal upgrades that will squeeze a little extra speed from existing lines.

Critics correctly point out that the rail lines will never make back in passenger fees what they cost to build. Yet neither was the interstate highway system a for-profit venture. It did, however, open the landscape to increased movement of people, goods and ideas. Train advocates hope that high-speed rail will do the same.

The Crowded Skies
Alleviating air traffic congestion is one of the major goals of the new push into high-speed rail. According to a study by the Federal Aviation Administration, without a major overhaul of the air traffic control system, 27 of the 56 largest airports in the country will push past excess capacity by 2025. Even with an overhaul, 14 of them will be over capacity.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "The Third Way."