In the wake of yesterday's announcement that President-elect Barack Obama and his Vice President-elect Joe Biden will travel to Washington, D.C. by train for the inauguration, America is taking a new look at what is literally an old problem: our rail infrastructure is obsolete.
Setting aside for the moment the technological limitations of the Acela design, which at a top speed of 150 mph is far slower than high-speed models already in use in Europe and Japan that reach speeds in excess of 220 mph, the real hurdle is the track. Designed for use by steam engines in the late 1800s and early twentieth century, even Amtrak's flagship Northeast Corridor holdings from Washington to Boston allow the Acela to reach its top speed for less than 20 miles. The tracks are too curvy, the tunnels too unstable, the infrastructure too weak. It's not a matter of repair; the tracks need to be replaced.
Truth be told, we've known that for more than a decade. For much of that time, however, any talk of rail development was overshadowed by the political ambitions of an administration determined to erradicate rather than enhance the National Passenger Rail Corporation (Amtrak). Americans also preferred their cars, with their cheap gasoline, and the political implications of calling for an infrastructure investment that were as questionable as the tracks such calls intended to replace.
Fast-forward to December 2008. Bush is leaving; Obama is coming in, bringing with him a Vice President who spent much of his decades-long Senate career commuting daily by rail from his home in Delaware. The economy is in ruins, and infrastructure investment is the order of the day. For Democrats, calls of a New Deal-style program offer hope for Keynesian stimulus. Their support for rail investment is practically a given.
Republicans, meanwhile, see an opportunity to reintegrate private-sector backing at a time when the very concept of a private sector is in question. This unexpected turn of events is why we now see Representative John L. Mica (R-Fla) not only supporting but championing a project whose projected cost of $18 to $40 billion--one that "is asking private companies and state entities to help the federal government design, construct, finance, operate and maintain high-speed rail service."
And we should all cheer!
The fact is, rail service is not and should not be a partisan issue. As with healthcare, there are many ways to provide rail service effectively. Europe's train systems are Government-sponsored; BritRail and Japan Railways are privately operated with Government backing. Either model is fine. What is not fine is a model that doesn't work.
It's time that we stop arguing over whether we need rail--we do--and get down to the business of making it work. That's not ideology. It's smart sense.