Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Who’s afraid of rail investment? National politicians, apparently

Earlier today, Pat pointed out that Obama’s address about infrastructure and investment didn’t contain anything about rail or transit. It’s just the usual “roads and bridges.” It’s something we’ve often wondered about over the past few weeks: where’s the beef?

We here at TFA, along with practically every other blog about non-auto transportation, have been holding our breaths waiting for anything at all substantive about how the Obama administration is going to take advantage of this unique time to refocus attention on our overcrowded and underfunded transit systems. We latch onto the same non-committal comments from leaders. What’s the difference between Obama’s praise for a Midwest HSR network back in July and Biden’s comments at the National Governors Convention a few days ago? Only a few months and an election, really.

And we’ve seen all sorts of editorials recently about how excited people are about new rail investments. States and municipalities, hungry for transit dollars, have queued up in the breadlines with “ready to go” projects, but who’s to say everyone’s not getting all riled up about nothing? Do these local officials know something we don’t? My fear is that this new infrastructure investment opportunity will only benefit rail in the form of money trickling down from “highways and bridges.”

It seems to me that national politicians are afraid of proposing something so ambitious as a nationwide rail/transit investment. We’ve heard remarkably little about John Kerry’s HSR bill, and we’ve got our ears affixed firmly to the ground on these matters. The general public probably knows nothing about it. The problem is, in a country where everyone is forced to drive by necessity, that sort of spending can probably be easily characterized as liberal idealism, or just pork.

But in talking to people in both Tennessee and Minnesota, I’ve come to believe that people are fundamentally interested in passenger rail. They’d like to be able to get out of their cars every once in a while, but they just don’t think it’s convenient as it stands now. They’re also concerned about the massive monetary investment rail requires. But of course, we’re already spending $700 billion, why not put some of that towards a system that can improve quality of life, spur commercial development, and help our environment?

Barack Obama and Joe Biden are exactly the people who could raise these points, who can make a case for investing in HSR, Amtrak, and transit. And they seem to want to. You can feel it bubbling under their well-practiced political veneer. Maybe that’s enough. A more well rounded Secretary of Transportation and even a neutral administration would be a vast improvement. And if some of that “infrastructure” money is tagged for rail improvements, that’s good news even if it’s kept quiet. But much more progress could be made if our newly elected leaders would be bold enough to bring this topic to the foreground.


Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, , , , ,

9 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    A NY – Boston Amtrak trip costs $100-$150, while the same trip by an intercity bus service like BoltBus costs $15. And they manage that cost without tons of government funding. I love passenger rail service as much as you guys, but perhaps, at least in the immediate term, nonstop intercity bus service is a much more feasible and attractive method of reducing carbon emissions and fossil fuel use, as well as saving people money. Imagine if we subsidized the cost of a BoltBus ticket down to $10–less than what you’d pay for gas driving the same trip in a personal car. And imagine doing that between every major American city. Can you imagine selling Amtrak tickets from NY to Boston for $10?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Well? What are you waiting for? Go to and submit your plan for passenger rail expansion to the president-elect! ..

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’d like to know what you guys think about two types of unconventional rail-type transit ideas. One is the ‘Interstate Rail’ proposal:

    The idea is to utilize one lane each direction on interstate highways (or any major highway) for rail service, riding righ alongside the automobile traffic. If the technical hurdles can be overcome, this sort of system has some advantages over traditional rail service, many of which are detailed in the article. The major one is that there are no level crossings on interstate highways, so the train has no need to maintain slow speeds for safety’s sake. Another is that interstate highways already exist, so new rights of way do not have to be obtained for new rail lines.

    Another is one you’ve likely heard of, Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT:

    This is more a solution for shorter distance trips, essentially an alternative to taxis or subways in a major city. The advantage is that it is both an on-demand service, like a taxi service, as well as a guideway-based automated and grade-elevated service–individual cars ride on elevated guideways and are directed by a central computer which plots the optimal route for each car to optimize travel time both per car and in the aggregate. It would very much resemble an amusement park ride, but a bit more sophisticated and put to a practical use. This idea is a bit more futuristic, and still has many cost barriers to implementation currently, but might be a promising concept in the medium to long term.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Intercity buses use 36% as much energy per passenger as Amtrak (1996):

  5. Jordan says:

    Speed is the difference. Who wants to spend 3 days going from Missouri to Los Angeles, if you can do the same trip on HSR in 18 hours?

  6. Allan says:

    I forgot where I saw it but there was a study showing that while other modes of transportation have become more efficient, rail is still using cars that are excessively heavy.

    I will say this, being a tall person, I have much more room on Amtrak coach cars that I do on a bus. I visit Mexico a lot and they have a wonderful bus system that I often use.

  7. Anonymous says:

    A trip from St. Louis to LA takes the same time on either Greyhound or Amtrak: 41 hours. The cost is also comparable, probably because nobody goes from St. Louis to LA (compared with more popular routes).

    A high speed trip in 18 hours between MO and LA would be wonderful. Let me know when someone builds a high speed rail line from MO to LA with tickets under $200.

  8. […] that while some transit advocates/highway critics are giving Obama the benefit of the doubt, others are worried about the frequent references to “roads and bridges:” We here at TFA, along with […]

  9. fpteditors says:

    Transport of people is a system. The current U.S. system is the auto. It is heavily subsidized and extremely wasteful. The biggest subsidies are mitigation of climate disruption and paying for oil wars. Trains cannot work until the system is changed. Making urban public transit free can begin this process. For 60 basis points of sales tax you can have it in most locations and reap immediate benefits.

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December 2008


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