Trains For America

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A national rail plan based on HSR corridors

An editorial in today’s San Francisco Chronicle is calling for a “rational national rail plan” (that’s a knee-slapper) based on high-speed corridors rather than Amtrak’s current mix of short-haul and long-haul trains. While I disagree with the notion that Amtrak’s long-haul routes are dead weight, the article makes an interesting point: that the development of American HSR will require a national program above and beyond the current Amtrak system.

Any high-speed rail program would require massive, long-term public commitment and investment. Given today’s weak economy, a large-scale public works program of rail improvements might make both economic and political sense. However, proclaiming, “Yes, but the private sector should do it,” is simply a politically expedient way to deep-six the idea.

In sum, a rational national rail program could help ease dependence on foreign oil. But a truly rational program would require a substantial refocusing from the current Amtrak model. Even if we started today, measurable improvements are probably at least five years away. But if we never start, we’ll never see those improvements.

The article is correct in pointing out that as it stands now, Amtrak isn’t going to be the one building truly high-speed corrdidors. The problem is that the company is barely given enough money to maintain its current system, let alone develop its own expensive new lines. For this, Amtrak would require an ambitious new mandate backed by serious funding. Politics being the way they are, I don’t think it’s going to happen. Washington seems increasingly willing to aid states with their rail projects, but a federal HSR plan as the Chronicle describes would take a sort of brevity that most national politicians can’t seem to muster.

As the article hints at, the danger is that high-speed rhetoric will be used to play up pointless privatization talk and diminish Amtrak’s relevance. This can’t be allowed to happen. The transportation crisis isn’t waiting for any HSR plan to be implemented. We need better rail transport now, and that means more funding for Amtrak, not less.

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