US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been touring European HSR systems in recent days and is coming away impressed:
Spain's bullet train system is a model to follow as America plans how to spend the money the government is injecting to stimulate the economy, the U.S. transportation secretary said Saturday....
The Spanish network is likely to interest the U.S. government because its specially designed, electrified tracks — first devised for the French TGV system — are not as expensive to lay and run as some German or Japanese alternatives.
And Spanish state-of-the-art tunneling technology has proved successful in boring efficiently through mountain ranges to reach the cities of Valladolid and Malaga.
LaHood met with Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to discuss how investing in such a train system could stimulate job creation in the U.S.
"Yesterday I traveled on a train at close to 350 kilometers (215 miles) per hour, the fastest I've ever ridden on a high-speed train," LaHood said. He said he had enjoyed a conversation and beverage aboard and found the experience very civilized.
"Our leaders have made the decision that America will have high speed rail," LaHood said.
As a longtime aficionado of the AVE system I am pleased, but not surprised, to see LaHood taking to the Spanish system. Because the Iberian Peninsula had its own rail gauge, Spain had to build all-new tracks using standard gauge for the AVE - meaning they have dedicated HSR tracks just as California will. Of particular interest is the tunneling technology Spain has employed, as The Transport Politic points out:
What is clear is that the distinctively Spanish obsession with using tunnel boring machines (TBM) seems to be a model for the Transportation Secretary; these semi-automated devices save on both time and cost in building underground rail corridors. For example, the 3.5 mile tunnel under downtown Barcelona, which is part of a larger project that will allow high-speed trains from central Spain to reach France, will only cost 180 million Euros to build. That’s far cheaper per mile than any similar U.S. tunneling project, and part of the explanation is the efficient use of those TBMs.
TBMs will be a godsend here in California where significant tunneling in the Pacheco Pass and Tehachapi Mountain areas will be needed to complete the system. Of course, I am sure that the Peninsula NIMBYs will seize on this as well as an argument that their tunnel is financially viable - which it probably isn't, and besides, they need to defend the position that their tunnel is more important than the all-important Pacheco and Tehachapi tunnels which are sorta necessary for the whole project to work as intended.
It's also possible that the tour is going to reconfirm for Ray LaHood the importance of adopting European safety standards for HSR trainsets. The FRA's weight rules need to be modernized - the current rules are an embarrassment and an impediment to proper HSR development in America. As the head of the Department that includes the FRA, LaHood is in a strong position to insist that the FRA enter the 21st century.
Perhaps the most important aspect of LaHood's visit is intangible - a renewed commitment to building European-style HSR here in America. Currently the only project that meets that standard is California's. I have every reason to believe this trip to France and Spain will bolster LaHood's demonstrated conviction that California's HSR project is deserving of robust federal support.