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Page last updated at 11:50 GMT, Friday, 24 April 2009 12:50 UK

Reviving the once-mighty railroad

By Vincent Dowd
BBC World Service reporter

At 1745 daily an Amtrak Cascades train pulls out of Vancouver and heads south to the US.

An Amtrak train
Sleek but not speedy: US trains are restricted in how fast they can go

It is scheduled to arrive in Seattle, in Washington State, four hours and 20 minutes later. Even allowing for customs at the border it is hardly a speedy way to cover 157 miles (252km), although the scenery is nice.

But if Washington State's Department of Transport succeeds in grabbing some of the cash on offer from the other Washington - 2,300 miles away - the Pacific Northwest could yet see some of the best rail services in the US.

America's long-distance network fell into long-term decline in the 1930s. But Barack Obama - encouraged by his rail-enthusiast Vice President Joe Biden - wants the once-mighty railroad to make a contribution to economic rebirth.

Getting serious

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act sets aside $8bn (£5bn) for new high-speed services. That's not huge - lines will cost a minimum of $30m (£20.6m) a mile to build from scratch.

But President Obama has spoken of rail with such enthusiasm that some in the industry can barely believe how quickly things are changing.

Map showing location of US high-speed rail routes

The Pacific Northwest is one of 11 high-speed corridors identified by the US Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). It may be the remotest from Washington DC but the fact Washington State has long been serious about rail means it is optimistic the FRA will hand it some of the money.

That the trains he helps pay for have to run so slowly does not please Andrew Wood, the transplanted Brit who runs Washington State's rail projects.

With British Columbia to the north and Oregon to the south, the state helps fund the route from Vancouver down to Eugene.

But like most US passenger services, Cascades trains currently run at a maximum and federally-mandated 79mph (127km/h). Yet the clean and modern Spanish-built trains could easily travel at 110mph.

Outside the North East Corridor however (from Boston down to Washington DC) Amtrak does not own the track it runs on but "borrows" from freight railways - in the case of Seattle that means the Burlington, Northern, Santa Fe Railway.

Their freight lines were never meant for speed or passenger comfort - something Mr Wood hopes new cash may fix.

"To have the federal government now coming out even with $8bn is great. It lets us look to the future and see what we could really do to develop high-speed," he says.

He believes in this regard America is 50 years behind western Europe or Japan.

"When I was at school in England teachers always said whatever America does Europe will do in 15 years. This is the roles reversed - the Obama plan's the first step."

Theory and practice

Washington - one of the states most committed to rail - may be looking forward to running trains at 110mph - but Spain, for example, is already running services at 205mph.

California corridor : Bay Area, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego
Pacific Northwest corridor : Eugene, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, Vancouver British Columbia
South Central corridor : Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, Little Rock
Gulf Coast corridor : Houston, New Orleans, Mobile, Birmingham, Atlanta
Chicago hub network : Chicago, Milwaukee, Twin Cities, St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville
Florida corridor : Orlando, Tampa, Miami
Southeast corridor : Washington, Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta, Macon, Columbia, Savannah, Jacksonville
Keystone corridor : Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh
Empire corridor : New York City, Albany, Buffalo
Northern New England corridor : Boston, Montreal, Portland, Springfield, New Haven, Albany

And down in California they are planning an entirely new high-speed line from Sacramento south to San Diego running at up to 220mph.

Parts of it could, in theory, open by 2020 but Mr Wood says his passengers will see improvements long before that. And the White House wants results fast.

The passengers waiting at Seattle's King Street Station are attracted by the convenience of leaving from the city centre, the lack of security hassles and the cheap fares. The station has seen better days but a refurbishment is soon to return it to its original 1906 glory.

Joseph, 25, is waiting to travel to Portland. He likes the simplicity of rail, the views from the train windows - and the fact it is costing him just $30 one-way. "And this is West Coast America: like lots of people I want a greener way to travel. Trains are a way to cut your carbon footprint."

On the next bench is Molly, a student. "Trains are great for a journey this length," she says.

The 150 miles to Portland takes three and a half hours. Some think that is about as long as anyone will sit on a train.

"But I went on a train from Seattle to San Jose in California. It took 24 hours but I enjoyed it. If you could do that high-speed it'd be a really fun thing to do," says Molly.

Democrat-voting, ecologically-minded western Washington seems a good place to test if in the era of Mr Obama, the US really is getting more rail-minded.

But as the US seeks to cut its dependence on foreign oil - and cut its air pollution - those running its railroads are just beginning to hope things finally have changed in their favour.



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