While most investors were likely more focused on Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) earnings report on Thursday, a very different sort of announcement caught my eye: President Obama's call for a new commitment to high-speed passenger rail in this country. Plug-in hybrids enabled by Google's smart grid are one vision of our transportation future, but this one's perhaps equally intriguing.

The strategic plan, supported by $8 billion of stimulus money and a proposed $1 billion-per-year grant program, envisions a national network of 10 new "100-to-600-mile intercity corridors" including in California, the Gulf Coast, and the Chicago Hub Network. An 11th contender for government funding is the existing Acela Express service, a somewhat hamstrung high-speed line that runs on shared track between Washington D.C. and Boston.

High-speed rail, or HSR (defined in the plan as a system "reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 miles per hour"), has a lot going for it. The potential benefits include reduced traffic congestion, lower emissions, higher productivity, fewer fatalities, and less dependence on imported oil. Given the stated goals of Obama's energy policy, it's not hard to see why the administration is throwing its support behind HSR, which has been successfully implemented in China's Guangdong Province by Guangshen Railway, and throughout Europe and Japan as well.

It's not all smooth railing from here
Of course, there are many potential pitfalls here, with cost overruns perhaps the foremost public concern. I also tend to agree with oil analyst Gregor Macdonald that the priorities might be a little misplaced here, with intra-city rail a seemingly much more pressing need for daily commuters in ridiculously congested places like Houston and Los Angeles. I used to live in the former and am currently in the latter, and I'm thankful each and every day that my office is in my living room.

There's plenty of spirited debate on HSR elsewhere on the Web (I'll link some of this up on my CAPS blog). The investment angle hasn't been addressed in much depth, though, so let's focus on the companies that may profit from this passenger rail push.

C'mon baby, do the loco-motion
As far as turning out the trains themselves, that's the province of powerhouses like Alstom, Siemens (NYSE:SI), and Bombardier. Alstom, a French firm, is the market leader in "very high-speed trains," having built over 70% of the world's trains traveling at over 300 km/h (186 mph). Unfortunately, like Bombardier, it has no sponsored listing on a domestic stock exchange.

The above companies are all huge conglomerates. As far as rail components go, a more concentrated bet would be something like L.B. Foster or Wabtec (NYSE:WAB), the latter of which commands about half the market for braking-related equipment in North America. Wabtec also makes everything from freight cars to train-control electronics. Aside from the manufacturing angle, Wabtec's service division has been contracted to convert ordinary rail cars for high-speed compatibility.

Portec Rail Products also offers several avenues for participating in a passenger rail renaissance. It's not only a dominant player in rail joints, but a specialist in rail lubrication as well. Unless we employ maglev trains (which hover slightly above the rail during transit using "magnetic levitation"), we're going to need some serious friction control on those tracks. Be aware, though, that Portec is a microcap stock and trading volumes are light, with insiders owning over 30% of shares.

Some heavy lifting required
The other major group of firms poised to participate in any HSR program is the engineering, procurement, and construction crowd. At the front-end stage, you've got firms like Tetra Tech (NASDAQ:TTEK), which specializes in environmental permitting and assessment work. AECOM Technology (NYSE:ACM) is another top contender, considering that it's landed work on both London's $22 billion Crossrail project, and Florida's proposed high-speed rail project.

Then, of course, there are the civil infrastructure heavyweights like Jacobs Engineering (NYSE:JEC) and URS (NYSE:URS). Both firms call California home, and URS already has a pair of joint ventures working on the HSR project there. Given the state's $34 billion cost estimate of just the initial phase (Anaheim to San Francisco), there may be room for both firms to pick up a significant piece of business here.

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Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. Check out his CAPS profile or follow his articles using Twitter or RSS. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.