UPDATE: Whither high-speed rail?

All news about Amtrak, high-speed rail and American trains in general tends to be like Groundhog Day, the  movie. The storylines are the same, day after day, year after year. When Democrats are in office, we're going to finally catch up with other industrialized countries and build a faster and better network. When Republicans have more power, among the first proposed spending cuts are Amtrak's whole budget and seed money for new rail systems.

Yesterday was sadly the same. The Obama administration announced it wants to spend billions on rail projects, many of them launched just two years ago. At pratically the same hour, House Republicans said they want to eliminate high-speed rail funding along with spending on numerous other domestic programs. In 30 years of writing about this topic, I have reported something along the same lines at least half a dozen times. Or maybe more. I can't remember. How could people in one country see the value of modern rail service, or lack of it, in such diametrically opposed ways time after time, year after year? Yes, we also are as divided politically today as we have been at any time in those three decades, but this debate basically repeats the same arguments that have been made by the two sides for that whole time.

Another problem, as pointed out in this essay in the rail and railfan magazine Trains, the Federal Railroad Administration may not have been as good a manager of the high-speed program as it needs to be. I have read similar critiques of government's role in managing rail programs numerous times in the past, so that doesn't really shed much new light.

If history repeats itself, as it seems to do every few years on this topic, enough Republicans from places where passenger trains are important, joined by fellow GOPers who want highway funds for their districts, will quietly agree to vote with Democrats to fund Amtrak. The same goes for some high-speed rail funding, with it touching enough Republican districts to get a little support for it. Passenger service in those corridors where it's well-established and has strong local political support, including in the Northeast, the California coast and a few other places, will continue to do all right.

But the truth is, since the completion of the interstate highways and the prosperity the country enjoyed from the '50s to the '70s created the urban sprawl we have today, it is going to be very hard, perhaps impossible to create new rail systems like those of western Europe that we envy so much. We should be trying, but it's hard to be optimistic. Yes, new rail systems will cost a lot of money, but so does every new lane of concrete highway and every new airport runway and terminal. If more members of Congress actually had to drive themselves in rush-hour traffic on crumbing roads, perhaps we would have to have this debate year after year, decade after decade.           

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