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High-speed rail worthy of dreaming

It’s impossible to predict whether a fully functional system of high-speed passenger rail service ever will come to this part of Pennsylvania.

However, for the Keystone State as a whole and other states in close proximity to the eastern seaboard, it would be great if there were high-speed-rail access to places like Washington, D.C., and New York.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that such a convenience will become reality in this part of the country for most people currently living, even though high-speed rail service has been an on-again, off-again topic for about 50 years.

But there’s nothing wrong with hoping and dreaming, especially for a rail center like Altoona, and for other places close by.

An article in Monday’s Wall Street Journal provided information of interest to anyone with a railroad heritage or anyone who recognizes the value of improved and expanded transportation opportunities, especially on the rail front.

Under the headline “Amtrak puts $2 billion on the line,” the beginning of Monday’s Journal article reads as follows:

“The future of American high-speed rail is sitting in a building older than the Battle of Gettysburg: a cavernous factory that holds the first shells of a $2 billion fleet of Amtrak Acela trains due to begin running from Washington, D.C., to Boston two years from now.

“Even as Congress moves toward renewed debates over the future of both Amtrak and high-speed rail, the first of 28 new Acela train sets are starting to take shape here (Hornell, N.Y.)

“They are the first new generation of passenger trains on the railroad since the Acela’s debut in 2000.

“For Amtrak, that means a chance to relaunch a service … still the nearest approximation in the U.S. to the high-speed trains that whisk travelers among major cities in Europe and Asia.”

As anyone who has followed the high-speed rail issue knows, the biggest impediment to mimicking the capabilities in play overseas is the lack of a track system capable of accommodating sought-after train speeds — along the Northeast Corridor as well as to places like Harrisburg, Altoona, Johnstown and points west.

The reason to be pessimistic about high-speed rail eventually serving points in central and western Pennsylvania is the big outlay that would be necessary to upgrade — and expand — track and roadbeds.

Even if money ever would become available to begin the massive track-upgrade project, that mission no doubt would takes decades before all of the challenges were overcome.

Still, the staggering cost is the biggest immediate challenge — although this country always seems able to find the billions and trillions of dollars needed to fund objectives — not all of them worthy — that presidents and lawmakers seek to pursue.

According to Monday’s Journal article, the new trains will have a top speed of 160 mph, up from the 150 mph of the current Acela fleet, but will be capable of reaching a speed of 186 mph with upgraded tracks.

Currently, curves on the Northeast Corridor prohibit top-speed travel, except in a few places. Meanwhile, unlike in Europe and Asia, today’s passenger trains share tracks with freight and commuter trains, a situation that requires lower speeds.

For now, high-speed trains serving Altoona, Johnstown and points west and east are but hopes and dreams, but it’s interesting that there are positive developments on that front.

When Congress debates Amtrak’s future, it should get onboard with rail service enhancement, rather than undermine it.

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