PORTLAND — When the Obama administration last week unveiled a transportation plan that will award billions of dollars in high-speed rail funding, riders of the Amtrak Downeaster probably envisioned the train whizzing between Boston and Portland at 150 mph, a speed that would make it competitive with air travel.

That may well happen one day, but the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which runs the Downeaster, says right now the service is focusing on winning its battle with the automobile.

Last week federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and President Barack Obama presented guidelines that would make the Portland-Boston line one of three New England corridors eligible to compete for $8 billion earmarked in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The three New England corridors were among 10 national corridors identified in a high-speed rail infrastructure plan lauded by some as a new dawn for the rail industry.  

“Yesterday was a historic day for the passenger rail industry,” said NNEPRA Executive Director Patricia Quinn, who attended last week’s presentation in Washington, D.C. “To talk about rail not as an add-on to our transportation system, but as a core piece of it, was very exciting. A lot of my colleagues have been at this for decades. I came to work the next day with a whole new set of eyes.”

Obama said the funding plan was “not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future,” adding that European and Asian countries had long invested in high-speed rail systems.

But critics said Obama’s $8 billion isn’t enough to fund even the most modest American rail system. For example, California’s planned bullet train between Sacramento and San Diego, which some believe will be a front-runner for federal funding because voters there have already committed to spend $10 billion on the project, is expected to cost $40 billion.

Quinn said NNEPRA hasn’t drafted a high-speed plan for the Downeaster, but that it has already begun speaking with the state Department of Transportation and Pan Am Railways, which owns the right-of-way for most of the track. Quinn said that while there’s money in the federal plan for identified high-speed projects, the Downeaster would most likely focus on smaller upgrades that would make the service more competitive with travel by automobile in the short term and also lay the groundwork for future high-speed rail. 

Examples of such improvements would be upgraded signal systems, straightening curves or bridge repairs. Quinn said that funding could also be used to upgrade traffic capacity in Massachusetts, where the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority owns the right-of-way for 38 miles of track. 

Quinn said those issues have sometimes slowed the Downeaster’s travel times. The train’s top speed is 80 mph, but it struggles to maintain that speed, particularly in Massachusetts. 

Quinn said the train typically travels the 110-mile route in about 2 1/2 hours. She said the goal is to get the service under two hours, which would make it more competitive with driving and also open additional opportunities for the Downeaster’s planned expansion to Brunswick.

Although Quinn said NNEPRA dreams of a day when the Portland-Boston line can accommodate high-speed trains like the Amtrak Acela, which can reach speeds of 150 mph, she said the Downeaster wants to focus on a plan that’s “reasonable and doable.”

“I think we’d like to give it our best shot,” Quinn said. “We understand that it’s important to get in the game now. … Once we’re able to start making these improvements it’ll open up other possibilities. It adds a new dynamic because before there was never any money to even consider such a thing.

“Everything we do to improve our service … makes us a better alternative,” she added. “All those things move us from nice to have to gotta have.”

While rail advocates like Quinn applauded Obama’s high-speed ambitions, others wondered if the administration’s plan did enough to make America’s rail system competitive with the rest of the world.

An editorial in the Los Angeles Times noted that other countries funded high-speed rail initiatives by imposing steep taxes on gasoline. 

“The taxes have the dual purpose of providing the funding to build public transit and encouraging people to ride it because they make driving prohibitively expensive,” the Times said.

Similarly, an Oregonian editorial said that Obama’s plan is a positive step, but one doomed to fail unless Americans change their attitudes toward automobiles and taxes.

“… As long as the United States insists on being the land of cheap gas and low taxes,” the newspaper said, “it will continue to be the land of congested freeways and plodding passenger trains.”

Steve Mistler can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]



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