Ideas for Obama: Buy the Rail Lines

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.

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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.

 

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10 years ago
There are other parts of the country besides the Northeast and Chicagoland that can also use investment in rail. It is that same narrow regional thinking that limits Congress to invest in a truly national rail system.
10 years ago
Mr. Winters is right on the mark. Most importantly, we need to get over this myth that Amtrak should run without subsidy. It seems more generally understood and accepted now that passenger services cannot be covered out of the fare box anywhere in the world. Other readers here might be interested to read what former Amtrak president David L. Gunn proclaimed the 7 myths about Amtrak. Link: [http://www.calrailnews.com/crn/0703/0703_7.pdf] YDSeminole, however, makes a good point in that the entire country needs to be considered, not only the northeast. However I didn't get the impression that Mr. Winters was ignoring other possible options so much as he was giving example of certain routes in order to illuminate the potentialities of a serious approach to mass transit and it's many obvious benefits. Thom Davis seems to have concluded that Mr. Winters was suggesting the taking over of the railroads. I believe that Mr. Winters is suggesting that the rail LINES should be nationalized. This would not be dissimilar from the nationalized highway systems throughout the country. These were initially promoted as ''defense highways''. As was obvious in tragic situation in New Orleans after Katrina hit there, defending the citizens from immediate harm by moving large numbers out of that affected area by rail would be the best defense in a crisis. Amtrak was able to assist in the rescue but much more could have been accomplished if there were more stock to draw from and more routes established. Mr. Winter's suggestion of using Homeland Security funding in this context is a brilliant idea in my opinion.
10 years ago
High speed rail is the 21st century equivalent of the national interstate system. Europe already has a leg up on us. Who wants to continue to be dependent on $2, $5, or even $8 per gallon gas for transportation.
10 years ago
I'm a big fan of passenger rail, but it will *never* operate at a profit. The European model has always been heavily subsidized; if we want passenger rail we'll have to subsidize it, too. We already subsidize Amtrak, but not at the level necessary for adequate service. Subsidy isn't really a bad word, though - the interstate highway system would not exist were it not for govt. subsidy. You lost me, though, on your idea of "nationalizing" the railroads. After the existing railroads shed passenger service were deregulated in the 70s, they started making money again. I can't see them agreeing to be acquired by the govt. There are still ways passenger service can be expanded - by improving the northeast corridor, which Amtrak owns, by working with freight railroads and paying for capacity improvement, and by buying and restarting abandoned rail lines when it makes sense. Oh, and by the way, Chicago-Milwaukee train service exists now, and commuter train service connects Chicago-South Bend, albeit poorly.
10 years ago
Although I agree with much of what is said in the article, it must be remembered that the Washington-Boston ''Corridor'' is the result of many revisions to a continuous line between the two cities with a history of almost 130 years. Numerous ''bottle-necks'' include the tunnels at Baltimore, the bridging of numerous rivers in Maryland, Connecticut, and Rhode Island and the urban density of construction in the area served (not to mention the 100 year old Hudson River tunnels). Some studies indicate that improving allignment in the ''Corridor'' would be a multi-billion dollar project. With the amount of deficit spending underway in Congress right now, I don' expect it to happen soon.

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