Tuesday, August 24, 2010

High-Speed Rail: A Track To The Future

Fifty years ago, you could get on a Pennsylvania Railroad train at the station in the northern Delaware college town where I live.

You could go
anywhere in North America that had rail service with relative ease. A transfer here and a transfer there, but if dropping in on your mum in British Columbia or taking in the sights in Mexico was your wont, those destinations and thousands of others were at your beck and call.

Ten years ago, there was no rail service in the northern Delaware college town where I live.

The Pennsy was long a goner and Amtrak's Metroliners would whistle past the station, and stopping was out of the question for so tiny a destination. The once immense railroad had died for a number of reasons, but the biggest was the post-World War II love affair with the automobile, the spread of suburbs and the federally-subsidized interstate highway system.

Today, there is some rail service in the northern Delaware college town where I live.

A single Amtrak train makes a northbound and southbound stop each day and the Philadelphia regional rail system sends a dozen commuter trains a day down and back up the decrepit local tracks. But there is no weekend service and what service there is during the week is clustered during the morning and evening rush hours.

Perhaps most frustrating of all, local rail service ends at my station hard by the Delaware-Maryland line, creating an asinine situation by which it is possible to take local trains from north of New York City to my station, but then there is a gap before local service picks up 20 miles into Maryland and continues on through Washington, D.C. to northern Virginia.

A common denominator 50 and 10 years ago and today is that gasoline was and remains cheap. Even at $3 a gallon, it's a bargain, while the federal tax (a mere 18 cents a gallon) has not gone up since 1993.

But sooner or later the price of gasoline is going to go through the roof, which begs a very big question: If Uncle Sam can subsidize airlines and Detroit automakers, coddle oil companies and pay for interstate highways, why can't it subsidize the next logical leap in a national rail system -- high-speed train service between major cities -- let alone increase its comparatively paltry aid to Amtrak and regional rail systems?

The answer, as Bruce Selcraig writes, is that there simply is not the will to do what governments from China to Spain, from right-wing to socialist, are doing in creating safe and reliable high-speed train networks that reply on subsidies or private partnerships, but in each instance create many thousands of jobs while relieving traffic congestion, reducing carbon emissions and dependence of oil.

What's more, Selcraig notes:

"In virtually every developed nation except the United States, although there may still be pitched political battles over immigration, foreign policy and soccer, hardly anyone argues about the wisdom of their fast trains."

Hat tip to E.D. Kain at Balloon Juice

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