Over the last year or two the idea of rail travel as a transportation alternative in this country has gained some momentum, aka any momentum considering it had almost none before (except from addictive jingle Senate candidate extraordinaire Gail Parker!)
NBC Nightly News had a great report Saturday evening adding context and specificity to the cost and approach of implementing high-speed rail. Somehow, I caught this broadcast live. It was a quiet weekend evening. In the process, I single-handedly lowered the median viewership age to 28 from 68. Maybe there will be fewer Flomax ads now.
If there is any doubt high-speed rail is much faster than what we have now, take this illustration. Right now the fastest commuter train in the US is the Amtrak Acela and it travels from New York to Washington D.C. in 3 hours and 5 minutes, give or take. Its average speed is 84 mph. (It could go over 100 mph but the track it uses does not enable that.) High-speed trains like the ones in Europe and Japan go 200 mph and higher. If you apply that to the NY to DC route, we are talking about a traffic-less trip in an hour to an hour and 15 minutes.
Two other words that don’t come into play on those 5-hour automotive escapades between Gotham and the Potomac: bar car.
Yesterday the Obama Administration unveiled its rail plan officially; the details were the same as officials, including Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, described to NBC in interviews. $8 billion from ARRA (the stimulus plan) will be allocated to develop corridors for high-speed rail and the long-term goal is to develop 11 different high-speed corridors.
The President summed up the situation briskly: “This is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. It is now. It is happening right now. It’s been happening for decades. The problem is it’s been happening elsewhere.”
Remember during the campaign when Obama said he would talk straight and tell us things we might not want to hear? Well, here he is saying, guess what, we’re behind the times, we dropped the ball on this one. It wasn’t offensive; it was true. In a country that is a leader in so many ways, it’s actually good for Americans to hear this and be humbled slightly. This doesn’t mean we aren’t a world-class nation that can’t do anything we set our minds to, it simply says we could do this but thus far have squandered the chance.
A consultant says that proving high-speed rail can work on the NY to DC route is the key to broad support. He is probably right that it will be the most effective persuasion tool since it is a high-traffic zone that many Americans are familiar with.
Still, as a matter of funding allocation, voters in the South, Midwest, and West will be peeved that their cash is backing Northeast travel only. I can see the tea-bagging parties now: “Stop railroading me by train-ing bankers to the Beltway!”
In any event, this all may sound enticing but $8 billion won’t do enough. It would cost $5 billion alone just to change the track so that the current Acela could get up to 150 mph. It will cost significantly more than $8 billion to get true high-speed rail on that route. Obama’s budget does also include an additional $1 billion a year for the next five years, but that isn’t going to solve the problem: estimations for a Los Angeles to San Francisco route clock in at $45 billion. The reality is that high-speed rail, clean, energy efficient, and fast, will cost hundreds of billions.