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Thursday, June 29, 2006 | Traveling from downtown San Diego to downtown Los Angeles (127 miles) in less than 45 minutes? It’s done everyday for this distance in heavily urbanized areas in Western Europe and Japan. Today, it has become routine at 180 to 250 miles an hour.

It uses technologies that have been perfected decades ago, and in case you wonder, it is called a high-speed passenger train. We don’t have to invent or wait for improvements that will be added in good time. Modern trains are fast, smooth, relatively quiet, comfortable, safe, reliable and frequent (there is one coming at least each hour and often several more during the daytime). It is even better for long distance with fewer intermediate stops: How would you like to go: Boston to Washington (456 miles) in two and a half hours, New York to Chicago (931 miles) or Chicago to New Orleans (923 miles) in under five hours, Vancouver to Los Angeles (1,366 miles) in under seven hours?

With plenty of body space and leg room, with easy security and plenty of baggage you can easily manage without embarrassment, taking off and alighting in the center of town instead of at some point distant from your ultimate destination, almost impervious to weather conditions and rarely delayed? Over all, it is a myth that air travel is always faster than train travel. When all these high-speed train advantages are considered, air travel increasingly loses out except for transcontinental and transoceanic travel. Take a gander with me.

This is not a pie in the sky. Look at it this way: It was Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, announcing his resignation to be effective July 7, who boldly, as a security measure, grounded all aircraft over the United States on the terrible day of Sept. 11. In one fell swoop this necessary act paralyzed the entire air transportation and economic system of the country and cost it billions of dollars.

The commercial airlines industry has still not fully recovered from this series of events. The main reason for these dire consequences is that the United States did not have then, and still does not have now, a viable alternative to commercial air transport. At the time you had to make do with long automobile travel, rely on slow moving creaky trains, or just stay put. By contrast, nearly all the rest of the industrial world has a passenger railroad system worthy of that name. It is embarrassing for us to observe how the U.S. Congress has consistently starved Amtrak because it refuses to admit a simple fact: Mass transit, local, regional and national is not likely to ever pay for itself.

To expect otherwise is to believe in the Tooth Fairy. Whether you like it or not, all national means of transport are directly and indirectly heavily subsidized: For example, commercial airlines benefit from the investment and maintenance of airports, access roads, air-traffic control and such.

The trucking industry could not function without our extensive highway and freeway system, which costs us about $80 billion a year. A well-oiled infrastructure is essential to the survival and prosperity of a great nation.

Indeed, it was under the impetus and vision of President Dwight D. Eisenhower that the National System of Interstate and Defense Highway Act was passed in 1956. This vital system of almost 47,000 miles, still to be completed and continuously brought up to date, transformed the United States in good and bad ways, but when all is said and done, it greatly enhanced our economy vitality and national defense. It was to cost $25 billions (dreamers!) but ended up costing $114 billion.

Excluding the Louisiana Purchase, this Interstate Highway System proved to be one of the finest investments that the nation ever made. A similar investment in a national high speed rail system today would likely achieve a still higher return because it would also significantly reduce oil consumption and pollution, generate millions of new jobs, provide a critically needed fast and efficient additional mode of transportation, and contribute mightily to our national defense.

If you balk at what such a system would cost, probably somewhere around $250 billions over 10 years, just consider what the adventure in Iraq is continuing to cost us in lives and wasted resources for very little if any clear benefit. Great projects are part and parcel of our national destiny and keep it glowing. This is certainly one great way to go forward.

Elie Shneour is research director & president of Biosystems Research Institute. He is also involved in San Diego regional and in national issues involving science in domestic and foreign affairs. Agree? Disagree? Send a letter to the editor.

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