March 11, 2010

Advocates eye funds for faster Downeaster


— By

Staff Writer

President Obama allocated $8 billion Thursday to help establish high-speed rail corridors nationwide, giving hope to rail advocates that some of that money could be used to speed up Amtrak's Downeaster train service.

The Boston-Portland corridor was one of 10 listed nationally as being eligible for the funding, which is part of the $787 billion economic stimulus package.

The federal government will begin awarding money for projects by the end of this summer based on a competitive application process, said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates the Downeaster service.

She said officials in Maine and Massachusetts will work together, along with Pan Am Railways, which owns much of the rail right of way, to develop an investment plan that speeds up the train service.

''I think it challenges us to really put our heads together and come up with a good proposal,'' said Quinn, who on Thursday attended a briefing in Washington about the announcement.

The ''terrific'' news is that the federal government has agreed for the first time to invest in the nation's high-speed corridors, said Greg Nadeau, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation.

''It is a very important step,'' he said. ''It puts us in a good position to compete for those funds.''

Boston-Portland has been designated for years as a high-speed corridor, even though the Downeaster's top speed is 79 mph and the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration's definition of high-speed rail is at least 90 mph.

On Amtrak's nine-year-old Acela Express route, connecting Boston and Washington, D.C., the trains are built to reach speeds of 150 mph, but hit an average of only about 80 mph because of curving tracks and slower-moving trains that share the tracks.

The 110-mile Downeaster trip between Boston and Portland takes 2½ hours, which is generally longer than an automobile or bus trip would take. Since the service began in December 2001, it has served more than 2.3 million riders.

Rail improvements would allow the train to travel faster, Quinn said. In addition, money could be spent to add rail capacity in Massachusetts, where congestion on Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority lines acts as a bottleneck and slows down the train, she said.

Wayne Davis of TrainRiders/Northeast, the citizens group that more than two decades ago began prodding Amtrak and state officials to create the service, said he always envisioned high-speed service.

The fact that the right of way is already in place, and is relatively straight, means that it would be fairly easy to upgrade for high-speed service, compared with lines in other parts of the country, he said.

One obstacle is that there is only one track, and it is shared with other trains. Davis said there is room to lay a second track on the existing right of way and on bridges.

Davis said that 110 mph service should be attainable. At that speed, an express train could travel between Boston and Portland in about an hour.

''You can't beat that, not even flying,'' he said.

The White House said the funding will move into the rail system through three channels.

The first will be to upgrade projects that have already been approved and just need funding.

The second and third channels would focus on high-speed rail planning and then a commitment to help in the execution of those plans far into the future, when the stimulus funds are no longer available.

Obama, who appeared at a briefing with Vice President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, called for the country to move swiftly to a system of high-speed rail travel, saying it would relieve congestion, help clean the air and save energy.

The president said the country can't afford not to invest in a major upgrade to rail travel.

He said he understands it necessarily will be ''a long-term project,'' but the time to start is now.

''This is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future,'' he said. ''It's happening now. The problem is, it's happening elsewhere.''

He cited superior high-speed rail travel in countries such as China, Japan, France and Spain.

Japan opened the first high-speed rail in the 1960s, and now has a system that carries more passengers than any other country. The Japanese Shinkansen trains hurtle through the countryside at an average of about 180 mph.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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