The proposal, however, worthy as it is on its own merits, is not without its difficulties and shortcomings and I'm not referring to financial or technological problems but problems in the proposal itself. The central one is inherent: Its focus is on the glitzy toys of 220-mph trains running in high-traffic areas rather than on building and maintaining an actual nationwide intercity mass-transit system; that is, a national modern railroad system. The National Association of Railroad Passengers put it more delicately but with the same botton-line point:
“The National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) pledges to support the President’s visionary plan for high-speed rail” said Ross Capon, president of NARP. “And we are asking the President—along with the rest of the nation’s leaders and transportation officials—to work towards expanding the existing intercity passenger rail network to give 100 percent of Americans access to reliable, modern train service.”The real goal, that is, should not be 80% having access to high-speed trains but 100% having access to good trains.
The other problem is a bit more subtle but still quite real: Focusing on high-speed rail actual undermines rather than advances that broader goal. What's envisioned is a relatively few regional hubs with rail lines reaching out like spokes to other cities in the region, an arrangement whose primary purpose seems to be making it more convenient for business travelers than taking planes. It proposes, that is, to enhance regional train travel at the expense of long-distance train travel. Want to go from Milwaukee to Chicago? You're cool; take the train. Want to go from Boston to Chicago? Um, yeah, you're still gonna fly.
Over the long term, the idea, supposedly, is to link those hubs into a single network, but the economic and environmental questions of completely revamping our rail system just to do the regional hubs are so great that anyone who thinks that we can skip the long-distance trains and get back to them later - especially when the criterion is "better than flying" - is dreaming. In fact, I think that is so obvious that I have trouble believing those pushing for high-speed rail don't see it.
A related point is that we have been here before. This is very similar to the notion advanced by the Shrub gang back in 2005-2006 and again in 2007-2008 as part of its attempts to dismantle Amtrak, just without the panache of high-speed rail: They proposed to break it into a series of disconnected regional lines. And then as now, the primary concern seems to be how to get business travelers from one place to another in the shortest time.
There's another "same as it ever was" aspect to this: The Shrub gang wanted to "split off" the Northeast corridor, which would effectively wreck the system. Now we have this:
Sitting beneath the famous zodiac mural of Grand Central’s main concourse, with the rumble of commuters and trains in the background, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held its first field hearing of the new session this morning. The topic was the future of high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor.While I'm tempted to think that this is because it's the line these people are the most likely to use, I think the real reason is more fundamental: The Northeast corridor was and remains Amtrak's only profitable long-distance line. So of course private industry, which abandoned passenger rail, which deliberately drove it into the ground to justify doing so, now that government has proven this line can be run profitably which of course we can't have, we can't have the government being able to do anything well, of course private industry is to be brought in as a "partner." Of course it's time for another "public-private partnership," which generally means, as here, public investment and private profit.
Chairman John Mica led the committee’s Republicans towards what appears to be their emerging message on high-speed rail: they’re for it, so long as it’s built through public-private partnerships and largely limited to the dense Boston-Washington corridor.
In fact, the comparison with the Bush years is even closer, as some voices want to throw the whole thing into private hands. One is the US High Speed Rail Association, which wants the Northeast corridor privatized. In an interview with Fox Business, Andy Kuhns, president of the group, said:
We're pushing for some private companies to come in and run the trains but we do need the new infrastructure to get the high-quality trains that are comparable to Europe and Japan.Which rather blatantly translates to "Government, you do the work and pay the price to make it convenient; corporations, you take the profit."
Besides the obvious GOPpers and other right-wingers, the voices included former Pennsylvania governor (and Rachel Maddow favorite) Ed Rendell, who said
the federal government could lease the operational rights to a private company or sell the assets completely.So even before any proposal is formally made by the White House, there is already bipartisan agreement that the future of public rail - isn't public. Not when there's a buck to be made.
Not everyone agrees, happily. Representative Nick Rahall, ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee,
said in his opening statement that a national rail network ought to remain the focus. “After all,” the West Virginia Democrat said,” it was a national vision that led to the creation of the world’s most advanced highway and aviation networks.”He had already reacted to the SOTU by saying he
supports Obama’s call for more high-speed passenger rail spending as long as Amtrak, the U.S. long-distance passenger railroad, doesn’t get left behind.Which is exactly the risk I see and that the NARP hinted at.
(Rahall, by the way, was a cosponsor of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act a couple of years ago, which provided some stable funding for Amtrak for the first time by providing around $7.5 billion over five years. “Americans, especially West Virginians, love their railroads,” he said.)
Long-time readers here will likely know that I'm one of those who loves the trains. Not only do I agree with the old Cunard line ad slogan "Getting there is half the fun" or at least it damn well should be, I agree with the travel writer (link misplaced) who said the best way to see the US is from the windows of a train. I say it as I have before: When you fly, you see clouds. When you drive, you see pavement. When you take the train, you see scenery. And yeah, I do walk the walk: I've logged something over 35,000 miles on Amtrak and we're planning another trip.
Amtrak has been a whipping boy of the right ever since it was created, so much so that it has a bad reputation as an inefficient boondoogle - a reputation, while not entirely undeserved in the early years, is now held mostly by people who have never ridden it.
What's not well-known even among its fans, though, is that it was never intended to succeed. In fact, it was set up to fail. How, you ask? Simple: The (claimed) idea was that Amtrak would, after a couple of years of declining subsidies, break even and "stand on its own." But that was a fool's errand and everyone involved either knew it and didn't care, didn't know it and didn't care, or knew it and looked forward to the failure.
[Amtrak] has struggled ever since it was formed," said John Spychalski, a transportation expert and professor of supply chain management at Pennsylvania State University.In fact, there is hardly an example any time anywhere in the world where intercity passenger rail has made money "above the rail" and none have done so when the other costs are considered. Amtrak was set up to be a failure.
He said Amtrak has been systematically starved of investment over the years and subject to unrealistic expectations that it could somehow get up on its own feet and become a profitable enterprise. "You cannot operate intercity rail service at a profit," he said.
Some individual lines may make money "above the rail," excluding the cost of basic infrastructure and maintenance, but "there is no way those systems as a whole are going to make money on passenger traffic," he said.
But it has survived. Just barely sometimes, scraping by, but it has survived because it has proved sufficiently popular - increasingly popular, it would appear, as ridership was up 14% in November over the year before - that the wingnuts have been unable to kill it. Like the man said, "Americans love their railroads." The very fact that it has survived, it has done better than was expected, that it has even improved, is precisely why the wackos of the right hate it and why they are again trying to kill it. As part of its maniacal plan to slash government spending, the Republican Study Committee has proposed
eliminating federal subsidies for Amtrak ($1.6 billion annually), the Transportation Department's New Starts program for commuter rail and rapid transit systems ($2 billion annually), and all grant programs for intercity and high-speed rail ($2.5 billion annually).So it's not good enough to spin visions of bullet trains and 220-mph trains getting you from one city to another faster than you can read your paper while at the same time failing to openly and aggressively support long-distance public rail as well as regional public rail. Not when the real system we already have is under threat.
Let me be clear: Obama's support for high-speed rail can't be doubted. Remember that the stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, included $8 billion for related projects around the country, an investment which is already starting to show results in a number of those areas. I have no doubt he is sincere in his desire for the "80% access to high-speed rail" goal.
But high-speed is not the only issue here and, putting it perhaps overly-colorfully, in considering mass rapid transit we shouldn't - in fact we can't, we dare not - put all the emphasis on the "rapid" to the detriment of the "mass."
Updated with a Footnote: Coincidentally, the day before this was posted the Wrexham & Shropshire line, which since 2008 had run trains from Marylebone Station in London to the town of Wrexham in northern Wales, closed down despite getting extraordinarily high ratings from its riders. What makes this relevant is that the line was one of three in the whole of the UK that ran without a government subsidy - and despite the high approval ratings, the company that ran it felt there was no chance it could be made profitable.
Which just goes to show yet another time that if you want to have an environmentally-friendly, efficient, intercity mass rapid transit system - that is, a modern railroad - you have to have public investment. Which is one of the reasons right-wingers hate it.