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Why we go slow on high-speed rail

The French high-speed rail system was planned, engineered, financed and built with a great deal of restrained deliberation.

Times file (2007)

The French high-speed rail system was planned, engineered, financed and built with a great deal of restrained deliberation.

Why is the United States one of the last industrialized countries in the world without a significant high-speed rail system? The answer is complicated.

In its mentality, America is a frontier. This country distrusts government as well as big business, and its thinking swings like a pendulum from one to the other. Most of the world views high-speed passenger rail as a government service, along with universal health care and pensions. Residents pay for these services with hefty taxes. But Americans envision themselves as self-reliant frontiersmen. Thus, why would they favor paying for high-speed rail?

"If you like small government, then you probably don't like high-speed rail," says Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Many Americans think "if the private sector isn't solving it, it must not be a problem."

The country's distaste for taxes dates to the American Revolution and continues up to the point of a real emergency such as a world war. Then patriotism takes over and Americans gladly pay taxes and go into battle. Amtrak exists only because of a serious emergency. In the late 1960s Northeast railroading deteriorated into bankruptcy, and passenger losses created a burden for freight railroads. Republican President Richard Nixon feared that he would be remembered for nationalizing America's railroads.

Formed in 1971, Amtrak didn't arrive in time to save Penn Central and its neighbors from bankruptcy, if anything could have. But next came the crusade to save freight railroading as a private enterprise.

The U.S. Railway Association succeeded in molding Penn Central and other bankrupt Eastern lines into Conrail in 1976. The problem was the fantasy that Conrail wouldn't cost much money to create, and that Amtrak would earn a profit after a small infusion of seed money. Amtrak never had a chance to be profitable, giving its opponents ammunition to disparage its existence to this day.

High-speed rail is a fairly new phenomenon, but again, America wants to try to do it on the cheap. The first U.S. president to embrace high-speed rail was Lyndon B. Johnson, but he forced the deteriorating Pennsylvania Railroad, not government, to bankroll most of the Northeastern Corridor's Metroliner project in the 1960s. The first president to support high-speed rail with real government money was Barack Obama, but those funds are paltry compared to the need.

Conrail finally got more money and succeeded, but Amtrak unfairly "has evolved into a poster child of government waste and abuse," says Ed Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads, and seems to have "a target on its back."

Meanwhile, Hamberger said, America helped to rebuild shattered European passenger railroads into the enviable position they hold today. Nonetheless, America has no reason to consider itself a Third World railroad country because it has "the world's best freight system."

Why are conservative Republican governors ganging up on passenger rail when they have no anti-rail history? Possibility the explanation is that Democrats are for it, so they must be against it. But there may be a deeper reason — that if government runs it, it must be bad. The conservative Republican governors of Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Jersey were only too happy to kill passenger rail plans to make an ideological point, even though those decisions will cost at least New Jersey and Wisconsin millions of federal construction dollars that they have already spent. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican, was an advocate for years for the high-speed line between Chicago and Minneapolis via Madison, but changed his position in 2010.

"How sad that it has become a political issue," says Albrecht Engel, Amtrak's new vice president for high-speed rail. "Republicans have always supported infrastructure. It is disturbing ... that this situation has developed."

Off the track in Florida

Florida is another issue. Until Gov. Rick Scott killed the plan, it appeared that Florida would have the country's first high-speed passenger line, from Tampa to Orlando with plans to eventually go on to Miami. With Democrats and Republicans both supporting the plan, and with much federal funding lined up, Scott nonetheless killed it. Much of Florida screamed and howled, but Scott seemed oblivious to the protest.

Suddenly, conservative columnists shouted in unison that high-speed rail is the enemy. Even columnist George Will, who admits to loving trains in general, joined the chorus. Will said there was a nefarious reason for the push for high-speed rail. "The real reason for progressives' passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans' individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism," he wrote in a column in Time magazine. That had many people scratching their heads. A comfortable high-speed ride is lulling us into being zombies? The Will column and other conservatives trumpeted that high-speed rail is only point to point while the automobile gives Americans freedoms that make progressives cringe. Will and other conservatives did not mention that airplanes must certainly create the same collectivism. They are point-to-point too, more so than high-speed rail. Trains can stop more frequently, including in suburban stations. And wherever airplanes land, there are ways for family to pick them up in cars, or for passengers to catch taxis or rapid transit. Gee, sounds just like train stations.

Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, says high-speed rail was a bipartisan issue before Obama's election, but now, "the policy of the Republican Party is to undermine any successes Obama might have." The exception: California, where former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger advocated for high-speed rail. Ironically, California's high-speed environment is brighter because of money from projects cancelled in other states. Other factors play major roles in America's failure to embrace high-speed rail, Diridon says. "The automobile and petroleum industries have fought any kind of non-petroleum transportation," he says.

Going slow on high-speed

Denis Doute, in charge of the French railway SNCF's high-speed activities in the United States, said France took years of preparation to build its first high-speed line from the Paris area to Lyon. The country finished planning, developed a consensus within the political factions, and financed the project before construction began. Other lines were built faster, drawing on the experience of Paris-Lyon. From the start of work at Paris to completion of the line southward from Lyon to Marseille took just over 20 years.

The United States is not following this careful planning and financing method. Europeans cringe at U.S. plans and assumptions. They ask why build 220-mph track through cities or on short stretches such as San Francisco-San Jose? Short stretches of high-speed track in crowded areas save little time, are expensive, and create local political problems.

America does not realize the seriousness of its mobility crisis, Engel says. The recent banking crisis got attention and government action, he says, but the mobility crisis gets relatively little attention. "Things are approaching the crisis level in all modes," Engel says. Politicians determined that the country can't afford Amtrak's $117 billion plan to modernize the Northeast Corridor, but Congress passed a stimulus bill almost eight times bigger in December. Congress and the public must be better educated about the crisis, or fast trains won't roll, and the economy's ability to compete with the rest of the world will be limited.

Don Phillips, transportation writer for the Washington Post until he retired, is a columnist for Trains magazine. A version of this essay appears in the April issue of Trains.

Why we go slow on high-speed rail 04/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 2, 2011 4:30am]
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