UTA getting aboard high-speed rail

It joins alliance of Western cities planning train linkups

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 8 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Salt Lake and other Western cities may someday be on routes for trains like German Siemens AG-made Velaro series.

Kirill Kudryavtsev, AFP/Getty Images

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Imagine waking up on a crisp Sunday morning, digging in the basement to find your trusty orange and blue jersey, then hopping the train for a three-hour ride to Invesco Field at Mile High to watch the Denver Broncos in crushing action.

Today, such a trip may seem like the ultimate football fantasy.

But in the past five years, as pollution, global climate change, fluctuating fuel prices and dwindling oil supplies have gotten people worried, transportation leaders across the United States have been talking seriously about high-speed rail as a solution. They're drawing maps dotted with potential train routes. They're forming regional alliances. And they're talking about funding.

For decades, "bullet trains" have been cheaply and conveniently transporting people in Europe and Asia. In April, President Barack Obama announced $13 billion — some coming from the $787 billion stimulus bill and some from the 2010 budget — would go to improve existing railroad and invest in high-speed rail.

Obama identified a handful of regions that could benefit. The Rocky Mountain West was not mentioned.

But Utah Transit Authority general manager John Inglish does not want Wasatch Front residents to be left at the station.

At a recent UTA Board of Trustees meeting, Inglish announced UTA was joining the so-called Western High-Speed Rail Alliance. The trustees passed a motion in support of UTA paying the alliance $5,000 a month.

Other cities in the alliance are Las Vegas, Reno, Phoenix, Denver and possibly Albuquerque. The money they contribute will pay for preliminary studies about where and how the trains would run and connect to other parts of the national network.

Critics of high speed believe the proposition is simply too costly. The rail lines will need expensive government money to start and continue running, they believe. Inglish describes high-speed rail as anything over 120 mph with some speeds up to 250 mph.

"It's a system," he said. "It isn't all marked at one speed. But it's all faster than 79 mph" the speed limit of FrontRunner Commuter Rail, set by the Federal Railroad Administration.

With plans for high speed in California under way, the Western High Speed Rail Alliance hopes to tie in with it, via Las Vegas to Southern California.

"And so the logical next connector is from Las Vegas to Salt Lake," Inglish said. "And then Salt Lake becomes the crossing point where it goes west, back again to the San Francisco Bay area or Sacramento and connects into that system."

"Or it goes east through Denver and ultimately to connect into the Texas systems that are running down between Dallas and Houston," Inglish said, describing the Texas proposal called the "Texas T-Bone Corridor," that would connect Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, Houston, Austin and other cities.

Proponents of high speed believe it "is a very green thing to do," as Inglish says, since high-speed trains would run on electricity.

Trains could haul masses of people who would normally drive or fly and burn gases many scientists believe contribute to global warming.

"In terms of travel between cities that are roughly 500 miles apart, it's far more convenient to get on high speed," Inglish said.

"That will get you there in a couple of hours. Even though an airport may get you there in an hour and a half, you still have the problem of landing in an airport outside your destination, and at least a 30 to 40 minute ground transportation travel for the city center."

(However, Inglish also noted that transportation officials are debating where to put rail stations. Some believe they should be in city centers, others believe they should be at airports.)

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