At the outset of 2010, in a press release predicting the top ten transportation topics for the year, Larry “Butch” Brown, president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) said that the long-term health of this nation will depend upon “how smart we become at enabling goods and products to get from one point to another with speed and efficiency.”

Speed and efficiency are two words inextricably tied to high speed rail, which – true to AASHTO’s prediction – has become one of the hottest transportation topics of the year.

National Rail Plan: Progress Report

Fast forward to October. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood recently announced the findings of a new progress report on the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) plans to develop a National Rail Plan.

“Giving rail a greater role in our national transportation system will help us meet the 21st century challenges of population growth, increasing energy costs, reducing carbon emissions, and ensuring the nation remains competitive in the global economy,” said Secretary of LaHood as he delivered the announcement.

The progress report – aptly entitled “Moving Forward” – builds upon a Preliminary National Rail Plan released one year ago, in October 2009. The preliminary plan was mandated by the passage of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA), which directed the FRA to develop a strategy to address the rail needs of the nation. The Act also required the FRA to provide assistance to states so that they could develop rail plans consistent with the national rail plan.

The updated National Rail Plan predicts continued population growth, especially in urban areas, along with increases in freight shipments, which together “will place additional burdens on transportation systems that are already working at or beyond capacity.”

Because of its ability to provide safe and efficient transportation, the Plan contends that rail travel “is well positioned to make a significant contribution to accommodating this forecasted growth.”

The Plan then describes visions for a high-speed intercity passenger rail system, as well as a high-performing freight rail system in the U.S. While this progress report unquestionably represents a work in progress, but true to its tag line, it represents a significant “move forward.”

Grassroots Efforts Provide Support for High Speed Rail

As the government moves forward with its plans for a national system, several regional high speed rail authorities are moving forward to build local rail corridors.

Citizen participation and grassroots efforts are also helping to translate the concept of high speed rail into reality. One national advocacy group, the U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR) has been particularly active in promoting public awareness, and garnering public, business, and political support for the development of a high speed rail system in this country.

“While a high speed rail system connecting cities throughout Europe has been in operation and continues to evolve, there is now expansive interest in developing a high speed rail network in the U.S. – particularly in busy corridors with high ridership,” according to Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.

The Association promotes the concept of a 17,000-mile state-of-the-art national high-speed rail system to be introduced in four phases through 2030. Its website includes a map showing what it believes to be the most logical sequence for the system to be built, with the first phase to be completed in 2015.

The USHSR plan’s framework is based on building systems to service the largest cities in the busiest corridors, using 220 mph trains to connect those together across the county. Then, much like the hierarchy of the federal interstate highway system, a support system of 110-mph lower-cost rail systems would be built to feed into high speed rail systems to connect passengers in smaller cities and towns.

He emphasizes that a new, purposefully-built system is the way to go; trying to tweak or rebuild our existing and aging system to accommodate high-speed rail travel would, in the long run, be a more expensive approach laden with obstacles.

According to Andy Kunz, “A national high speed rail system has the potential to “revitalize our economy, reactivate our manufacturing sector, be a catalyst to the next real estate boom, create millions of jobs, end our oil dependency, and cut our carbon footprint by epic proportions.”

Stay tuned … better yet, become involved in the dialogue! High speed rail could well be the next stop on our nation’s next “fast track” to economic progress.

Speed Rail Resources – Get Informed and Get Involved!

Visit the following high speed rail resources for more information about a national high speed rail plan, local high speed rail corridors – and for opportunities to get involved and support the development of a national high speed rail system.

High-Speed InterCity Rail Passenger Rail Program, news, updates, maps, and information sponsored by the Federal Railroad Administration

U.S. High Speed Rail Association, a national advocacy organization promoting public awareness and garnering public, business, and political support for a national high speed rail system

California High Speed Rail Authority, a state agency devoted to planning a state high speed rail system

Florida High Speed Rail Association, a division of the Florida Department of Transportation, devoted to planning a state high speed rail system

Midwest High Speed Rail Association, an advocacy organization supporting the development of a regional high speed rail system linking cities throughout the Midwest

Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, a multi-state planning cooperative devoted to building a high speed rail system from Washington D.C. to Charlotte, North Carolina

Center for High Speed Rail, an initiative of the American Public Transportation Association

High Speed Rail, an informational resource sponsored by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials

Stand Up for Trains, an action-oriented advocacy website launched by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association designed to promote citizen involvement in the political process