What’s Going on With the U.S.‘s ‘Global Joke’ of a Rail System?

Travel Blog  •  Michael Yessis  •  08.03.10 | 2:10 PM ET

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced $8 billion in grants for high-speed rail. So where’s that money going and what progress has the country made on its much needed rail upgrade? Michael Grunwald investigates:

But while $8 billion is more than four times the annual federal subsidy for Amtrak, it is just one-eighth of last year’s federal spending on highways. And at a time when our national credit card is already maxed out, this down payment is only a tiny fraction of what’s needed to establish a competitive new mode of travel. China plans to invest more than $300 billion in high-speed rail by 2020, and Spain expects to complete a more than $200 billion system the same year in a country the size of Texas.

Meanwhile, the distribution of the Obama money—$3.5 billion to start new lines for bullet trains in Florida and California, plus $4.5 billion for sundry bridge and tunnel repairs, track straightening and other upgrades to existing Amtrak lines nationwide—has sparked intense debates even among rail advocates. Why spread cash around the country like peanut butter instead of targeting a few showcase projects? Shouldn’t the seed money go to game-changing new bullet routes rather than help for old Amtrak lines that bleed cash, share track with slow-moving freight and can never exceed 110 m.p.h.? Why not focus on Amtrak’s popular and profitable service between Boston and Washington, where Acela trains—now with wi-fi!—already reach speeds of 150 m.p.h. but average only half that? And how exactly does Ohio’s proposed 3-C corridor linking Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati at an average speed of only 39 m.p.h. and a top speed of 79 m.p.h.—first achieved by American trains 180 years ago—qualify as “high speed”?

3 Comments for What’s Going on With the U.S.‘s ‘Global Joke’ of a Rail System?

Kristen 08.03.10 | 2:21 PM ET

I think high-speed train lines in this country would be fantastic, but I definitely agree with Michael Grunwald on this one—it would be nice to take an Amtrak train and not be delayed every time. I’ve started taking buses between NYC and Boston since they are cheaper and more reliable!

Steve 08.03.10 | 6:46 PM ET

If you go to the major train terminals here in the US such as Penn Station - and then you go to some of the beautiful train stations in Europe, one needs to wonder who won World War II?

griggs smith 08.04.10 | 12:45 PM ET

While our passenger rail system is a joke, our freight rail system is the envy of the world with more miles of rail than any country in the world.  We are faster and more efficient at moving freight than anyone.  Yes the europeans have a great passenger rail system, but their movement of freight is terrible.  Their tracks are full of passenger trains.  Remember, after WWII the only economical way to go from place to place was by rail.  The europeans could not afford cars.  Their road systems were slow to develope ( not many cars, everyone went by rail).  The high cost of fuel (gigantic taxes) in europe drove people to alternatives (rail).  We have urban sprawl, they have high density cities.  By the way, those gigantic taxes, subsidize the rail industry.
I am not against high speed rail, i just can’t justify the cost.  I don’t see it paying for itself.
I would love to have a maglev train running at 400mph in my state of Georgia.  I would want to go from Atlanta to Savannah port(250 miles).  That way freight could pay for part of the system.  I would then add a 100 mile leg to the port of Charleston in one direction and a 100+ mile leg to the port of Jacksonville in the other.  While this would link three ports and maximize the freight capacity,  it would allow access to beaches in three states (GA, FL, SC).  With a travel time of under an hour from Atlanta,  the passenger demand should be amazing if the price is not too high.  Remember alternative choices.  4 people in a car and 10 hours drive time, $100 in gas equals $25 each round trip.  Round trip air is at least $200.  Your price should be somewhere in between.  You could spend a day at the beach for less than a hotel room.  But there are going to be alot of people on that beach if a high speed rail is to be paid for.  Have you seen how crowed the beaches are in europe?
Remember, it was america who helped rebuild europe after WWII and paid for all those train stations and bridges.

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