When a high-speed rail train crashed in eastern China last month, questions arose about their safety. Many wondered aloud if the bullet trains should be brought to the United States.
Sen. Malcolm A. Smith (D-N.Y.) was the recipient of a number of those questions through phone calls and emails, he recently told The Root. He, like President Barack Obama, is an ardent proponent of the energy-efficient electric trains.
"It gets everyone's attention whenever there is an accident regarding new technology," he says. "It wasn't a design flaw that caused it. The accident was the result of the lack of someone doing their job."
Still, Chinese government officials recently announced the suspension of approvals for new rail projects and plans to conduct safety checks on existing lines following the deadly crash on July 23, according to Xinhua. They also called for newly built high-speed rails to run at slower speeds.
While keeping an eye on China's systems, U.S. lawmakers, like Smith, are hopeful for the future of the trains in America. Projects are on the drawing board in states including New York, Massachusetts and Illinois. Some of the trains can travel up to 220 mph, which could transform interstate travel in the U.S. and enable commuting over longer distances.
The energy-efficient trains, which are electrical, would also create green-economy jobs through the construction of rail systems and the manufacturing of new trains, according to Thomas Hart, vice president of government affairs and general counsel of the Washington-based U.S. High Speed Rail Association.
Additionally, the trains would pay for themselves by significantly reducing the nation's $700 billion-a-year oil-purchase trade deficit, says the nonprofit advocacy group, which is sponsoring a high-speed rail conference in November in New York.
"They simply lessen the carbon footprint," Hart said of bullet trains in an interview with The Root. "Airlines use 10 times more power and they use oil. Cars are not energy efficient at all. And then you have buses, which are a little better than cars and planes. But high-speed rail systems are powered exclusively by electricity. It's important that we start paying attention to the environment."
While statistics are scarce on African-American rail ridership, Amtrak is projecting for the first time that its overall annual ridership will exceed 30 million passengers nationwide, setting an all-time record when the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, according to a recent news release. Consumer reaction to high gasoline prices is one of the factors attributed to the projection, which is based on strong June ridership numbers and expected ticket sales for July, the Amtrak release says.
More than a decade ago, Amtrak introduced high-speed trains to the U.S. under its Acela Northeast corridor service. But the electric trains, which can reach a top speed of 150 mph, only average 70 mph on the route between New York and Washington because of track limitations and congestion. Amtrak is seeking approval for funding from Congress to make badly needed track improvements, upgrades and expansions to its Acela trains, reports the Business Alliance for Northeast Mobility.
Nonetheless, Hart says bullet trains would especially benefit minorities, who are less likely to own cars, and become more mobile with increased access to transportation and by virtue of the trains' speed. They could revolutionize commutes and potentially change African-American demographics.
"For example, it will cut travel time from New York City to Albany, N.Y., to 45 minutes versus 2 1/2 hours," Smith said. "What it could also do is cause minority communities to spread from cities to rural and suburban areas, which may be why some other congressional leaders are resisting high-speed rail. But the key thing here is that it will reduce dependency on foreign oil."
The cuts are not expected to stop the rail program for now because unspent money remains that can be used on new projects, the Times reports. But they leave the future of high-speed rail in the United States up in the air.
"So far roughly $10 billion has been approved for high-speed rail, but it has been spread to dozens of projects around the country," the Times said. "If Congress does not approve more money, the net result of all that spending may possibly be better regular train service in many areas, and a small down payment on one bullet train, in California."
As a result of the uncertainty, people like Hart are pushing for a public-private partnership with Amtrak to build a new infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor. He mapped out his position in a June editorial in the Hill in response to legislation by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to privatize high-speed rail development of the region.
"We believe public-private partnerships are the most viable way to finance high-speed rail development in this country, given current federal budget constraints and political opposition to massive government funding," Mica wrote. "This model has been successfully implemented in various forms at the state and local level for infrastructure and real estate development, and has also been implemented internationally for high-speed rail systems in several European nations, including England, France and Spain."
While legislators slug it out, Hart told The Root that he is hopeful the trains will become a reality in the U.S. sooner rather than later.
"It's really about energy efficiency," he said. "It's what people need to pay attention to."
Lynette Holloway is a frequent contributor to The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine. Follow her on Twitter.