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”?