Where the stimulus falls short: where’s the railroad?

The New York Times took the words out of my mouth Friday morning by raising the criticism that the economic stimulus package – which is long on tax breaks and non-infrastructure projects – totally misses the opportunity to restore the American railroad network through a heavy investment in high-speed train lines on the two coasts.

Michael Cooper writes:

“It may be the longest train delay in history: more than 40 years after the first bullet trains zipped through Japan, the United States still lacks true high-speed rail. And despite the record $8 billion investment in high-speed rail added at the last minute to the new economic stimulus package, that may not change any time soon.”

Acela is a feeble disappointment, hamstrung by a 19th century railroad bed from Boston to Washington and a xenophobic Congress that demanded the train be built in the US on inferior American technology rather than on the state of the art advances seen in France, Japan and China. Result? A bad train capable of 150 mph that generally runs at 86 mph except for a brief stretch in Rhode Island near the site of the Great Swamp Fight. The French TGV operates at average speeds of 173. I should, in this era, be able to ride from Providence, Rhode Island to New York Penn Station in two hours. I should be taking the train from New England to North Carolina and accomplishing the 750 mile trip in less than six hours. Instead I get $100+ one way ticket prices, no wireless, antiquated speeds, and broken down equipment. Thomas Friedman is right – walk through the new airport in Beijing and then walk through JFK and tell me who is the superpower.

Friedman wrote on Christmas Eve, 2008:

“A few hours later, I took off from Hong Kong’s ultramodern airport after riding out there from downtown on a sleek high-speed train — with wireless connectivity that was so good I was able to surf the Web the whole way on my laptop.

Landing at Kennedy Airport from Hong Kong was, as I’ve argued before, like going from the Jetsons to the Flintstones. The ugly, low-ceilinged arrival hall was cramped, and using a luggage cart cost $3. (Couldn’t we at least supply foreign visitors with a free luggage cart, like other major airports in the world?) As I looked around at this dingy room, it reminded of somewhere I had been before. Then I remembered: It was the luggage hall in the old Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport. It closed in 1998.

The next day I went to Penn Station, where the escalators down to the tracks are so narrow that they seem to have been designed before suitcases were invented. The disgusting track-side platforms apparently have not been cleaned since World War II. I took the Acela, America’s sorry excuse for a bullet train, from New York to Washington. Along the way, I tried to use my cellphone to conduct an interview and my conversation was interrupted by three dropped calls within one 15-minute span.

All I could think to myself was: If we’re so smart, why are other people living so much better than us? What has become of our infrastructure, which is so crucial to productivity?”


I don’t think it is backwards nostalgia to state that America was built on the strength of its railroad, was a pioneer in mass transit at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries with its Interurban line systems, and then let it all go to hell in the 1960s when the Eisenhower administration decided to pave America with superhighways. The result was the birth of the automobile society, the rise of Detroit, and a short-term mortgage on our future predicated on $0.25 a gallon gas, muscle cars, and the Kerouacian vision of every man expending his rugged individualism on the highway to hell.

Meanwhile the railroad slipped from backbone to creaking embarrassment. Not to be a cheese-eating/European-loving surrender monkey, but I did spend two years of my life in Switzerland and got a close look at how mass transit is supposed to work. From my government subsidized “halb-tax” pass, to a precise schedule that insured the train arrived at a station on time where a bus arrived – on time — to make the transfer to essentially any spot in the country within a half-kilometer of one’s final destination … this obsessive coordination included mountain trams! How did the Swiss and rest of Europe do it? First they taxed the snot out of a liter of gas, making it prohibitively expensive. Then they invested those taxes in the subsidization of the railroad, making it the most attractive form of transportation there is.

If the objective of the stimulus package was to turn things around for the future then why doesn’t it reduce reliance on petroleum, create heavy duty public works projects, push a green agenda, increase the efficiency of travel and commerce …. why didn’t Congress stuff a ton of cash into a total rebuild of the coastal rail systems? Instead we get a weak last minute allotment and keep shipping stacks of cash to Detroit. I don’t want to make this a car vs. rail post – but if we learned anything since the Oil Embargo thirty years ago, it’s that the car is doomed in the long term. Amtrak is a joke, kept on life support, and barely so, by a congress enthralled with the Big Automotive Supply Chain and the public works implications of an ever expanding federal superhighway system.

The historian in me can’t help but compare these early days of the Obama administration with FDR’s 100 Days – nowhere do I see the same hardnosed emphasis on public works, reform, and true Keynesian stimulus that my grandparents saw with the rise of the WPA, the CCC, and the reforms of Glass-Steagall. As rock-ribbed Cape Cod Yankee Republicans they were doubtlessly horrified by the socialization of the American economy, but the net result of FDR’s stimulus was a pump priming that put people to work. This package reeks of give-backs, tax breaks and dispensations to people who can’t pay their bills and not an investment in the future that government can, and has made in the past. This is the time to rebuild our power grid, air traffic control systems, railroads, nuclear power, wind, solar, invest in a new DARPA, and find the technical innovations that will drive the next generation of progress.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

6 thoughts on “Where the stimulus falls short: where’s the railroad?”

  1. Gentlemen,

    To me as a European, this article appears of an extremely fresh view, that answers my long askes question: why do The US not invest in high speed trains?

    I sincerely hope, this is a development which will go on, as the development of high speed rail transportation might be a healthy solution for the oil topic.

    In some articles I have read, some may think, high speed means a maximum of abt 110 miles/hour, but that speed is not concernd high speed traffic in Europe, as almost all railroads between important cities reach that already. Real high speed trains are such as the TGV in France, but also the ICE in Germany and several other such trains in Spain and Italy (a well known factory of such trains is “Breda” from Italy).

    I wish you success with this development.

    Willem JJ Boot

  2. I was in agreement up to the FDR comment. The “New Dea” and it’s public works projects were a failure in the sense that it prolonged the Great Depression by several years. A fact, I’m afraid, that will repeat itself with the Obama Admisitration. The problem as I see it is this: We shouldn’t be “taxed to death” on the petroleum side, as this also makes rail travel more expensive (or at least contibutes to it). A new taxation policy should be implemented (I vote for the Fair Tax. Look it up before you bombard me). Make all modes of transport cheaper. I use air travel because of my limited time, flying from the South to the Northeast. If rail travel was more direct (at times selected, I have to change trains in DC to get to NJ & NY) and faster than 18 hours, this would be a no brainer. Rail travel from NE Florida to the North East is about $220 r/t just about the same as air. Cut it to $150 and 15 hours and now you’re talking. Even I would consider riding the rails at that cost and time table.
    The North East Corridor can be revamped (as I understand) with better and tighter catanary and slightly better rails. The rails as I understand are cement tie, welded and smoothed “state of the art” as it were. The road beds are about as good as it gets, unless I’ve missed something.
    Amtrak and high speed rail should not rely on the Imperial Federal Government for more assistance. Make it stand on it’s own or let private enterprise run it. Most EVERYTHING the government touches turns to “junk”. Passenger and high speed rail need more than cash to make it work, and it can, by several changes to policy. I refer you to the latest TRAINS magazine. Of course, 10 years ago, another article was written about the very same thing.

  3. “Most EVERYTHING the government touches turns to “junk”.”

    Ah my pretty, therein lies the rub. (You know what I mean.)

    From my understanding of history, government taxed and regulated railroads to (near) death, took them over and voila “Most EVERYTHING the government touches turns to “junk”.”

  4. I agree with Vranich. The plan is pork because it spreads the investment across the country and will result in lots of sub-par projects and not a state of the art corridor on the coast.

    Chicago — got it. The man’s home state.
    Texas — don’t get it.
    California — S.F. to LA in 2.5 hours is a wonderful thing. Check. Focus on the coasts.
    Maine to DC? Sub-par. That’s where it needs to be focused.

    “Some rail advocates question the widsom of distributing the money over 11 regions, arguing such a strategy hampers development of a true European-style high-speed rail system. “What are we trying to achieve,” Joseph Vranich, a rail expert and author of several books on the topic, asked in a recent New York Times story. “If we really wanted to have high-speed rail in this country, and have it be a great success, then what we would do is concentrate the funds on the New York-Washington corridor, which is the top corridor in the country.”

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