Can High-Speed Rail Get on Track?

Obama is spending billions on a new network of faster trains. Is a car-crazed nation ready to add rails to the mix?

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Christopher Morris for TIME

Some routes, like this one between Tampa and Orlando, will get billions to test the notion that the U.S. is ready to take the train

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For Amtrak, the high-speed program is an even bigger opportunity — critics would say a backdoor bailout. Amtrak is adding new service in Wisconsin and Ohio, although GOP leaders in both states are pushing to turn down the federal aid. It's increasing frequency in North Carolina and Oregon, which can boost ridership even more than increasing speed. And it's hoping to shed its reputation as a railroad on a shoestring, after Bush tried to slash its budget to zero. To Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman, the state of his railroad is a national disgrace. "We need to replace our entire fleet," he griped. "There's been a total focus on aviation and highways in this country. It's nuts!"

Wanted: Options
Without a sustained national commitment, high-speed rail will flop.

As a one-off investment, the $400 million to start Ohio's 3-C service would be a laughable waste. At go-kart speeds, it will never draw drivers off the highways. It's defensible only as a first step toward competitive speeds. Similarly, Tampa-Orlando makes sense as the first leg of Tampa-Miami, but alone it's basically an expensive commuter line and Disney shuttle. Congress did approve $2.5 billion to expand high-speed rail in 2010, and House leaders have proposed an additional $50 billion over six years. But the estimates for a national network have ranged as high as $1 trillion, so at our current spending rate, we'd still be two centuries away.

Even with a China-style commitment, high-speed rail could flop in the U.S. Most of the regional corridors have the distances and densities that experts recommend, but as Obama noted in Tampa, we're still a nation of car people, even though we don't like paying for gas — or cleaning up oil spills. We fly a lot too, even though we complain about flying a lot. We give our kids trains sets and let them watch Thomas the Tank Engine, but it's not clear if we're ready for a major cultural shift.

Then again, uncertainties about the future are limited not just to trains. Airlines have been merging, charging for everything from carry-ons to bathrooms and canceling flights that aren't full. The federal highway fund went broke last year, the outlook for fuel prices is volatile at best, and our traffic keeps getting worse. Maybe frequent driving and flying still seem tolerable today; they might not in a decade.

What's certain is that the high-speed initiative reflects a vision of America's future. To a lifelong rail advocate like former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, who rode the subway to work as Massachusetts governor, it's un-American that many of our passenger trains move slower than they did 50 years ago, that China will soon have more high-speed mileage than the rest of the world combined, that even Saudi Arabia and Russia are ahead of us. "It's unbelievable that there are 100,000 people out there laying tracks between Beijing and Guangzhou, and we've just been putzing around for years," Dukakis says. "We don't even make trains anymore. It's pathetic!"

To critics, the high-speed effort is emblematic of a Dukakis-style urban-elitist dream of a Europeanized America, like the Administration's pushes for bike lanes and "livability," not to mention organic gardens and universal health care. It's about trying to improve on the freedom of the open road, constraining the American ethic of limitless possibilities with wonky studies about carbon emissions and freight efficiency. It's true that the high-speed-rail program is an investment in a metropolitan future, a vote for Chicago over Crawford, Texas, for dense downtowns with a train station on Main Street over sprawl roads to exurbia.

But it's mostly about what you don't have when you're stuck behind a jackknifed tractor trailer or when your flight is canceled for no good reason: options. It's unclear exactly how many Americans would ride on a truly competitive intercity rail system. But it's clear that we don't have one now.

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