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?

  • 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

    I rode a train from Miami to Orlando — and I liked it.

    I relaxed in a comfortable seat with Shaq-worthy legroom. I avoided the hassle of the airport and the maniacs on the highways. I did some phone interviews, read a book about the Compromise of 1850 and watched Funny People on my laptop; it wasn't Amtrak's fault the people weren't funny. In the dining car, I enjoyed a chat over lasagna with a train buff who shared my aversions to traffic jams, exurban sprawl, global warming, gas-guzzling SUVs with ludicrously rugged names, car alarms that go off at 3 a.m., the Chrysler bailout, the Toyota scandal and other by-products of our automotive culture. At one point, our train stopped in the middle of a classic old-Florida ranch, alongside a majestic oak dripping with Spanish moss, and I remember thinking, There's no better way to see America.

    Unfortunately, for the next half hour, we remained beside that oak tree. Door to door, the entire journey took 10 hours for a trip I usually drive in four. My seat cost only $36, but taxis to and from the stations cost twice that. Even for car haters like my wife and me — at our wedding (in a train station), the rabbi advised us to stay off the road if we wanted to stay married — slow-speed rail is a tough sell. And most Americans aren't car haters.

    This is why the Obama Administration is launching high-speed rail in the U.S.: so that Americans can ride sleek 220-m.p.h. bullet trains like the ones already zipping through Europe and Asia, as well as improved Amtrak lines that will still go far slower than bullets but will more consistently go faster than oaks. The goal is to create attractive alternatives to long drives and short flights, which would relieve road and air congestion; reduce carbon emissions, highway deaths and dependence on oil from foreign thugs or the blackened Gulf; create jobs; jump-start a new domestic manufacturing industry; and improve the competitiveness and convenience of the U.S. economy. President Obama inserted the first $8 billion for high-speed rail into last year's stimulus bill, even though it won't provide much short-term stimulus; it's a long-term legacy initiative modeled on the interstate-highway system, a gradual effort to transform the way we travel.

    The plans envision a national network of 13 high-speed corridors, including Miami to Orlando in just two hours. You wouldn't have to get to the airport ridiculously early, take off your shoes, turn off your phone or pay extra for luggage; you wouldn't have to worry about the weather or some Icelandic volcano canceling your trip. You wouldn't have to watch the road, wait in traffic, find parking or pull over to stretch your legs; you wouldn't risk arrest or an accident by drinking or texting.

    Our freight rail system is world-class, and our metropolitan areas are embracing commuter rail, but our intercity passenger rail is a global joke. "There's no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains," Obama said in his State of the Union address. The next day, he visited Tampa, Fla., with Vice President Biden — whose daily train rides between Washington and Wilmington, Del., earned him the nickname Amtrak Joe — to announce high-speed grants for 31 states. In an interview, Biden said he couldn't imagine an efficient transportation system in a carbon-constrained world without high-speed rail: "Tell me, how do you get it?"

    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"?

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