9.1.09

GOING FAST ON RAILS. I've been cleaning up the files, and turned up a May 2007 European Tribune diary entry speculating on a high speed rail network in the United States. It's rudimentary. I have been following the wishful thinking for some time (keep scrolling). Now comes John Judis of the Emerging Democratic Majority, a little late for Christmas, but asking for the electric trains all the same.

I am not suggesting that the United States start a world war in order to solve the world's economic problem. But I am suggesting a strategy that could be called the fiscal equivalent of war.

It would consist not merely of updating or repairing the nation's infrastructure, but in undertaking massive new investments that would expand the scope of American industry, and address other urgent problems in the process: global warming, over-reliance on petroleum, and the need to revive America's domestic manufacturing capabilities--not just to provide jobs, but also to provide tradeable goods that can reduce the country's current account deficit.

We'll get to the trains in a moment. Note, though, that Democrats will still be Democrats. Younger voters didn't experience the Carter administration, in which energy "independence" was the "moral equivalent of war." That is, a war that does not take advantage of oil shales or coastal or circumpolar oil sources. But I digress.
One area that is ripe for such investment--and that is not, from what I have seen, a declared priority of the Obama administration--is high-speed rail. Amtrak's Acela trains--the closest thing we have to one--average less than 100 mph between Washington D.C. and Boston, whereas trains in Western Europe and Japan go more than twice as fast. Many of them also run on electricity. They would be the most energy-efficient and quickest means of getting between places like Boston and New York, or Los Angeles and San Francisco. But they would require a massive investment. For instance, installing high-speed rail in the Northeast corridor could cost about $32 billion, while California's high-speed rail system would require up to $40 billion. A system that would address the other areas of the country could easily raise the cost to the hundreds of billions. The House transportation and infrastructure committee has currently proposed $5 billion in stimulus funds for intercity rail--not even a down payment on what it would cost to convert the U.S. to high-speed rail.
Perhaps an infrastructure project designed around 150 mph diesel- and turbine-electric trains running on Midwestern rails, where much of the right of way and signalling is already in place, would have a higher cost-benefit ratio.

And perhaps Mr Judis ought understand the railroad business a bit better.
Investing in high-speed rails would be very expensive, but unlike tax cuts--the benefits of which can be siphoned off in the purchase of imported goods--the money spent would go directly to reviving American industry and improving the country's trade balance. That doesn't just mean jobs creating dedicated tracks or new rail stations: Though the U.S. abandoned train manufacturing decades ago to the French, Germans, Canadians, and Japanese, this kind of production could be undertaken by our ailing auto companies or aircraft companies--if the federal and state governments were to place orders. And building trains that would run on electricity would be a paradigmatic example of the "green jobs" that Obama often touts.
It is true that U.S. rolling stock manufacturers have given up on the passenger business. They are, however, the world's best at freight locomotives and freight cars. Unless these rail projects involve all-new rights of way, the government will be working with the freight railroads on access to stations and on right-of-way improvements. There must exist some policy, for example, under which Union Pacific, owner of some of the best midwestern rail corridors, can be enticed into cooperating with the passenger carriers.

No comments: