UNSOUND AT ALMOST ANY SPEED

I like to ride the train as much as anyone. I ride two - one above ground, one beneath - to the office each morning. I ride two more to get home. And when I need to go from New York to Washington to see the great and mighty, it's Amtrak's Metroliner all the way.

Trains are practical, and they don't get backed up on the runway. They also have a certain romance. That romance, alas, is expensive; taxpayers spend millions each year to subsidize the rail fares of California-bou nd vacationers, with no particular social benefits as a result.Soon, the lure of the rails may prove even more costly. Some of the world's largest companies are devoting years of effort and millions of dollars to persuade America to invest in high-speed trains. There are very big bucks at stake. When rail equipment manufacturers look at the U.S. passenger business, they see a market that could be worth $30 billion over a decade.

Then again, it could be worth nothing at all. For all the hype, no one has yet taken the risk of building and operating a high-speed rail line. There's plenty of talk. But almost none of it gives serious consideration to the economics of running a railroad.

The talk is of speed. In the West, a bi-state commission is taking bids to build a train from Orange County, Calif., south of Los Angeles, to Las Vegas, Nev. Only proposals for trains running faster than 180 miles an hour will be considered.

In Texas, a new state authority wants proposals for 185 mph lines to link Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Houston. In Canada, where the government just abandoned half its little-used passenger rail system, some would spend $5.3 billion - that's roughly $200 per Canadian - to join Quebec and Toronto with trains that go 210 mph.

Equipment manufacturers, of course, are encouraging these dreams. Bombardier Inc., the Canadian builder of railcars, is promoting the Quebec- Toronto line.

A consortium of big West German companies, including Siemens AG and Thyssen AG, has an office in Austin to sell Texans on the virtues of magnetic levitation, which floats trains on a magnetic field above a single track. Alsthom SA of France and General Electric Co. PLC of Britain, co-builders of the French Train de Grande Vitesse, are taking full-color ads in U.S. magazines to tout their train's world speed record.

And if that's not enough to get you excited, this nascent industry's trade group, the High Speed Rail Association, can provide you with maps projecting future lines from Chicago to Minneapolis, Kansas City to Topeka, even Albuquerque to Santa Fe - a stretch that, on my last visit, appeared to have far more scenery than passengers.

The construction cost estimates for these super-fast lines - $4.4 billion for the Texas system, $4 billion for the Las Vegas express, $2.5 billion for Florida's 175 mph line from Miami to Orlando and Tampa - are vague at best, and operating costs are anyone's guess. To run at 170 mph, trains need a dedicated right-of-way, not shared with freight or commuter operations. That does not come cheap. Even the profits from real estate development around stations may not cover the cost.

Advanced technology always wows legislators; Congress successfully hounded the tight-fisted Bush administration to find $10 million for research on high- speed trains. But high speeds are not what it takes to bring passengers back to the rails.

A study last year in Ohio, where the state wants investors to build a line between Cleveland and Cincinnati, found that a diesel train with a top speed of 125 mph would generate only 2 percent less ridership than a more costly

electrified system operating at 170 mph. New York State's Transportation Department, which already helps finance Amtrak service between New York City and Albany at speeds up to 110 mph, believes high-speed projects elsewhere in the state are uneconomic.

Pennsylvania ditched proposals to build a line with magnetic levitation over the mountains from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh for the same reason. Even

plans for a high-speed line in the heavily populated Los Angeles-San Diego corridor were abandoned after a careful look at benefits and costs.

The excitement over fancy technology is diverting attention from far more realistic passenger rail projects that could relieve congestion and improve the environment today. Amtrak, for example, has developed a three-stage proposal that would unclog one of the nation's most crowded air corridors by cutting the running time between Boston and New York from four hours and 30 minutes to under three hours.

The project, which relies on electrification and improvements to existing tracks, would cost a modest $745 million, and the investment is projected to yield a profit almost immediately. Yet no one is rushing to finance it.

In its obsession with fancy rail technology, America is repeating a mistake of the 1970s. Back then, trying to promote urban mass transportation in the name of energy conservation, federal, state and local governments spent billions to build sophisticated rail systems in places like Atlanta, Miami and Baltimore.

The construction cost per passenger was exorbitant, and operating costs are high. Only later did Portland, San Diego and Sacramento prove that commuters will gladly ride a less advanced form of mass transportation that most of the country abandoned decades ago. It's called the trolley.

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