President-elect Obama should nationalize Amtrak’s rail lines and build high-speed rail lines connecting major cities throughout the East Coast and Industrial Midwest.
Amtrak already receives a federal subsidy because it can’t make a profit. There are two major reasons it can’t make a profit and they are related. First, Amtrak can’t offer a product enough people want. If it could get you from Washington to New York in two hours flat, they would not have trouble selling tickets. The second reason Amtrak is not profitable is that it has to maintain the rail lines, which is not only expensive in its own right, but makes updating those lines to high-speed rail an impossibility.
Rail is the only transportation industry that has to maintain not only its vehicles but the network. Drivers do not have to maintain roads. Airlines do not have to maintain airports. But, the rail companies have to maintain the lines their trains use. This is an historical anachronism: Trains, unlike cars and airplanes, were built in the nineteenth century and back then, there was no federal income tax so the government never had the money to construct a rail network. The government signed over land to the railroad companies and the companies built the rail lines. It is time for the government to buy them back.
My great-grandfather was a railroad worker and every school day my mother took the train from our rural town in Connecticut to the small city nearby to attend high school. Those tracks are now a hiking trail. Trains are never coming back to places like Hampton, Connecticut because it would never be cost efficient. Cars really do work better for some areas.
The Northeast Corridor, however, should be able to support a high-speed rail link. Connecting Chicago with Milwaukee by train and South Bend with both seems like it would be a profitable line. Connecting Columbus to Cleveland and Cincinnati shouldn’t be too hard. In addition, Amtrak’s lines could be shifted from pristine coastal routes where many of them are now, especially in New England. Neighbors would pay top dollar to have the land back and the high-speed rail lines could be put down the medians of major highways.
This is a huge construction project that would put people to work immediately. The technology exists already so there is no wait on that score. The long-term benefits to the environment are incalculable: Every weekend, I-95 turns into a parking lot along much of the Northeast corridor: You can see the fumes. And the congestion at LaGuardia, Logan and National airports is only scarcely less costly.
No less important are the cultural benefits. Rail lines create termini, and termini create clusters of people which create opportunities for entrepreneurs to build cafes and magazine stands and delis to service the crowds. Trains bring people together while cars disperse them and America does not suffer from too many centripetal cultural forces.
So, nationalize the rail lines and build high speed rail, put people to work, help the environment, and reduce traffic on the highways and at the airports. Like yesterday’s suggestion for raiding the Homeland Security budget to support mass transit improvements as part of urban evacuation plans, bringing high speed rail is an idea whose time has come.