High-Speed Rail Is in High Gear

China and Spain lead in new construction

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Illustration: Emily Cooper
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In 2009, high-speed rail garnered more than twice as much investment as air travel, a total of US $200 billion, $88 billion of which was in China, according to Aaron Gowell, CEO of SilverRail Technologies, a system integrator in Wakefield, Mass., that specializes in high-speed rail. Around the world, some 40 000 kilometers of high-speed rail track are under construction.

In Europe, where the length of high-speed rail is expected to quadruple in the next decade, Spain is the leader. A newly completed link between Madrid and Valencia gives the country 2056 km of high-speed rail. Another 3469 km are in the works.

The industry's taking off even in the United States, where a half century of highway subsidies has long sidelined rail development. Last year, as part of the so-called economic stimulus, the Obama administration awarded an initial $8 billion for high-speed passenger rail projects. Major links include Tampa–Orlando, Chicago–St. Louis, and Sacramento–San Francisco–Stockton.

Still, such development is dwarfed by growth in China, which is in the midst of a $500 billion, 20-year program to connect the entire country, from Harbin in the northeast to Hong Kong to Urumqi in the remote northwest. One seven-year project, which crossed the Yunnan–Guizhou Plateau, required 159 tunnels, 253 bridges, and $3.4 billion. High-speed rail is not for the faint of heart.

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