Here’s a nice read by Neal Peirce of the Seattle Times. With Obama’s whistlestop train tour to Washington about to start, Peirce gives a nice overview of recent developments, including the Amtrak reauthorization bill and the passage of the CAHSR bond. Importantly, he includes some statistics about passenger rail in the stimulus package, but wisely says that any transformation of our national rail service is going to take more initiative than a symbolic inauguration train ride.
But there’ll be tests. First up: Will railroads get a break in the massive economic-stimulus package now being debated (and fiercely fought over by states and localities)? The States for Passenger Rail Coalition reports its 31 member states have over $1.4 billion worth of ready-to-go, state-sponsored, city-to-city projects. Passenger trains are “penciled in” at $2 billion in the stimulus bill draft of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
But without strong presidential backing, rails could too easily lose out as not being “shovel-ready” — even though Amtrak could, for example, hire more people, and move quickly to bring equipment into its overhaul shops in Indiana and Delaware. Track-repair work everywhere could be accelerated. And there are many areas where new track can be added on existing routes, cutting back on the delays for freight trains that often slow Amtrak trains.
One big need: Refurbishing the Northeast Corridor, which handles close to 140 Acela and regional trains daily. Most of its electrification is 70 years old. The 1873-vintage masonry arch tunnel at Baltimore needs replacement — especially its sharp curve that limits southbound trains to 30 miles an hour. The 961-foot Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River in New Jersey, more than 90 years old, actually has to swing open, stopping all trains, to let marine vessels pass through. Other bridges and tunnels are in dire shape. Such projects may not be shovel-ready, but they’re crucial, and will need the new administration’s support.
There’s little doubt the public wants modern high-speed rail service — just note Californians’ recent approval of $9 billion for a 220-mile-per-hour line to link all major cities from Sacramento to San Diego. Regions from the Midwest to Texas to Florida and the South’s Piedmont area to the Pacific Northwest need to make parallel progress soon. In the process, there’ll be no substitute for a reformed and strong Amtrak, backed by the White House, willing to set high standards and raise the huge budgets equal to repairing a half-century’s negligence.
That’s a thought for Obama as he debarks at Washington’s Union Station and walks through its gloriously restored Great Hall.