Friday, September 25, 2009

United States “is a developing country in terms of rail”

A number of countries view high-speed trains as a viable (and environmentally preferable) to alternative to airline travel for many popular travel routes. Properly designed and run high-speed rail often competes favorably with air travel in terms of cost and convenience.

Unfortunately the U.S. is woefully behind in this arena and over the years our investments in transportation have focused on the automobile. Now that we understand the virtues of rail travel it's more than likely that we will be importing the technology necessary to get us up to speed (pun intended). (GW)

Siemens Fills Need for High-Speed Trains in Russia

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — In the last years of the cold war, the ultrasecret research institute that had designed the Soviet Union’s nuclear submarines received an unusual request: could it build a high-speed train?

The Soviet Union, despite its dependence on railroads, had fallen far behind Japan and Western Europe on high-speed transport. That the order came to the Rubin design bureau suggests that Moscow viewed catching up as a matter of national security.

The result of the little-known program was a slate-gray, round-nosed locomotive called the Sokol, Russian for falcon, that petered out soon after the Soviet Union did. The prototype achieved a top speed of only 143 miles an hour — hardly breaking a sweat by high-speed standards.

But the fall of the Falcon created an opening for Siemens.

This December, high-speed trains designed by the German conglomerate and adapted for Russian winters will ply the rails between St. Petersburg and Moscow. But Siemens hopes their final destination will be the last laggard of the high-speed age: the United States.

For years, businesspeople and politicians have dreamed about America entering the high-speed era, but Amtrak has been plagued by budget and service problems and the closest Americans have come to high speed is the Acela, which rarely runs at what Europeans call high speed.

Now Siemens and its competitors are hoping all that has changed. The economic stimulus passed by Congress in April includes a five-year, $13 billion high-speed rail program. Siemens is one of four makers of high-speed trains, none of them based in the United States, that hopes to take advantage of it.

Siemens executives said the tilt toward political acceptance of high-speed rail in the United States presented a remarkable business opportunity — assuming the systems get built.

The United States “is a developing country in terms of rail,” Ansgar Brockmeyer, head of public transit business for Siemens, said in an interview aboard the Russian test train, as wooden country homes and birch forests flickered by outside the window. “We are seeing it as a huge opportunity.”

To position itself to compete in the United States, Siemens has placed employees from its high-speed train division at its Sacramento factory, which produces city trams.

Siemens’s new train — the Sapsan, Russian for peregrine falcon — is a candidate for the high-speed link planned between San Francisco and Los Angeles that may open in 2020. Alstom, the maker of the French TGV trains, and Bombardier are also contenders. Japanese bullet train designs by Hitachi, which are lighter but less secure in a low-speed crash, the only type of collisions survivable, are another option.

The technological breakthrough of the Sapsan is that the train has no locomotive. Instead, electric motors are attached to wheels all along the train cars, as on some subway trains. (Passengers sit in the first car too.) Its top operating speed is 217 miles an hour, though in tests this model has reached 255 miles an hour, or about half the cruising speed of some jet airplanes.

In Russia, it took a decade of on-again, off-again talks before Siemens signed a deal with the state railways in 2006 amid a general thaw in relations between Germany and Russia.

Here as elsewhere, high-speed trains will compete with airlines. The 401-mile trip from downtown Moscow to downtown St. Petersburg will be 3 hours and 45 minutes. The average flying travel time is five hours, including the trips to and from the airport, check-in and security clearance.

The four-times-a-day service will trim 45 minutes from the fastest train service now. To achieve this, the Russian state railway spent $485 million upgrading the track and $926 million for eight Sapsan trains and a 30-year service agreement, at today’s exchange rates.

In other countries, high-speed trains have roundly beaten planes on price, overall travel time and convenience at ranges up to 600 miles between major cities. After high-speed trains between Paris and Lyons became well established, for example, commercial flights all but disappeared. And in the first year of operation, a Madrid-to-Barcelona high-speed link cut the air travel market about 50 percent.

In the United States — where the Department of Transportation has identified 11 high-speed corridors, including Los Angeles to San Francisco — high-speed rail would also compete with intercity car travel.

In Russia, it has a more peculiar competitor. With its vast distances and dismal roads, Russia has a long tradition of train travel, but Russians prefer to travel on overnight sleeper trains. (The highway between St. Petersburg and Moscow is at places a potholed, two-lane track.) Tea cups rattle on their saucers in the coal-heated compartments and beds are made with fresh linen.

The German trains, in contrast, are sleek strings of self-propelled, aluminum-skinned cars. But they will travel far below their 217 m.p.h. operating speed.

Pulling out of the St. Petersburg station on the test run, the Russian conductor kept the Sapsan throttled back at a modest 90 miles an hour as it rattled over older track in the city, making the typical clickety-clack noise of a train. High-speed rails are welded together and silent. It was like driving a new Porsche over a rutted road.

Out on refurbished track, the train accelerated to 150 miles an hour, the threshold until additional track improvements are made. As yet, not all the ties are as rigid as they should be, and the overhead electrical wires wobble as the train speeds by underneath. Sometimes electricity arcs in fire bolts.

Still, Russia has arrived in the high-speed club that includes Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Spain, Taiwan, Korea and China, which joined in 2007.

On the test run, over a stretch of the St. Petersburg-Moscow track, a birch forest blurred outside the window as the train revved. In one village, an old woman in a kerchief stopped in her tracks and pointed in surprise as the silver, rocket-shaped train sailed past at 150 miles an hour.

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