Thursday, May 29, 2008

High-speed rail for America?

In theory, America already has high-speed rail. It's called the Acela Express, and in many regards, it's an improvement over Amtrak's creeky regional rail cars, some of which are over 20 years old.

But for all of its styling, the Acela--which operates along the Northeast Corridor routes between Washington, D.C. and Boston--only musters about 83 miles per hour. Compare that to the 200mph AGV in France or China's 350mph Shanghai Maglev, and... well, it's like standing still. And to many people, that it costs approximately twice as much to get from D.C. to New York 15 minutes faster is adding insult to injury.

So why are we, the citizens of what is still ostensibly the world superpower, consigned to such sub-par rail service? Mostly, it comes down to money: while other nations treat their train systems as public goods, we think that they should be private, profit-based entities.

Of course, passenger rail isn't and can't be profitable as a general policy, which is why we have the strange quasi-government organization formally known as the National Passenger Rail Corporation and popularly known by the brand name Amtrak. Established in 1970--when most of the private passenger rail companies had gone under and the rest were pulling out of the business--Amtrak is a corporation jointly owned by the U.S. government and the private rail companies from which it came, but all of the voting stock belongs to the government.

The government didn't find passenger rail any easier to make profitable than did its private-sector predecessors, so Amtrak gets funding from the Federal budget. Unlike a true national rail carrier, though, Amtrak's funding is given only reluctantly, with the goal of eventually making the carrier self-sufficient. Long story short, that's why the Acela is less than one quarter as fast as China's maglev.

But times may be changing. A bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and approved by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would boost Amtrak funding by $14 billion, and that money would go to do something that Amtrak's current budget could never accommodate: build dedicated high-speed passenger rail tracks along the Northeast Corridor, tracks that would not share capacity with the existing (slow) regional or freight trains.

The result--speeds of 150mph or faster--would reduce the trip by D.C. to New York by 45 minutes, making a trip by rail about the same length as a flight when taking into account the check-in, security, and boarding procedures at airports. And while we might not get bragging rights on the world stage, at least the other countries would stop laughing.

If nothing else, isn't that a goal worth the investment?

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