THE BLOG

The Stimulus Package: Why is Intercity Rail Service at the End of the Line?

Feb 04, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

Only yesterday, Senator Diane Feinstein was quoted, "Our highways are jammed. People go to work in gridlock," while proposing adding $25 billion for highway and mass transit to the economic stimulus package. Concurrently Senator Charles Schumer is pushing to add $6.5 billion for mass transit, calling buses, subways and trains the "lifeblood" of the largest city of the nation. And yet as currently construed, and almost at the tail end of priorities of the House version of the bill, is but $1.1 billion set aside to improve intercity rail passenger service.

Given the remarkable advances achieved by rail travel over recent years, given the administration's clear focus on diminishing the nation's carbon footprint, this appears to be a particularly significant oversight, and raises troubling questions on the whole process.

Consider the following: England and France only recently initiated a high speed rail link between London and Paris, reducing travel time to 2 hours and 15 minutes. Eurostar's CEO Richard Brown would comment pridefully, "It will mark the start a new era of train service between the UK and mainland Europe, making high speed even faster, more reliable and less damaging as the alternative to flying."

France's "TGV," as its high-speed rail system is called carried its 1 billionth passenger in November 2003 and expects to reach 2 billion by 2010. This while the system is consistently being improved. Over a year ago the TGV reduced transit time of service between Paris and Strasbourg to 2 hours 20 minutes with trains gliding along at 200 miles per hour from what had previously been a 4 hour train ride. The commitment to ever faster and better service continues. TGV's latest model achieved a speed of 344.4 miles an hour on a test run in 2007.

The driving distance between New York and Chicago is 793 miles and under normal driving conditions takes about 14 hours driving time. A "bullet-train" service would cover the distance in some four hours downtown to downtown. Lunch in Chicago, dinner in New York. With trains traveling 344 miles per hour just over the horizon, I leave the rest to your imagination.

In France, the entire system is electrified, powered by a grid system where 80 percent of the electric energy is generated by carbon free nuclear power. That's another issue, for another time.

This would be an infrastructure project we could all get enthusiastic about and for which we could roll up our sleeves with great pride. So why is it not among the forefront of the "stimulus" priorities? Is it because our sad Amtrak system has no constituency, no representation among the new political class, the K Street lobbyists, with their massive power, wealth and influence?

Please, President Obama, say it ain't so!