Thursday, November 13, 2008

Creating the New Locomotive Economy

BOULDER, Colorado -- The United States' passenger rail system totally sucks. This is an irrefutable fact. With the exception of a few areas of the country (just the Northeast, really), there is no reliable, high-volume train service. Take a look at this route map of our beleaguered national carrier, Amtrak. Vast swaths of the county are unserved, and the network still essentially follows the major trunk lines that were constructed not long after the Civil War. Those green lines on the map are bus routes that hold this patwork together. There are no north-south routes outside of the coasts and the Chicago-New Orleans line. The few improvements that have been made - like the "high-speed" Acela in the Northeast corridor - are overpriced, unprofitable, and deliver only marginally better service than what preceded them.

I happen to like trains. I also like to drive my car. Nobody is saying that you have to give up your automobile and ride your bike to the train station like some Dutchman. But there are so many things happening in this country and across the globe that make rail a viable growth industry. It is cleaner and cheaper than relying on the interstate highway system for passenger transport and shipping. While less flexible, an expanded network would easily make it competitive with trucking and air travel. Most importantly, a carbon tax, in some form or another, is coming, making gasoline, diesel and jet fuel-powered transport more expensive than it already is. Trains can be the great infrastructure project of this generation that will put Americans back to work, restore our manufacturing base, grow green technology, and make America the best place in the world to do business again. This may sound like a tall order for the humble locomotive, but it has the potential to be a powerful engine of growth in the future.

The voters of California got at least one thing right on election day. Though they repealed the rights of their gay citizens to get gay married, Californians approved a $9.95 billion dollar bond issue to construct an 800-mile high-speed rail network connecting all the state's major cities. The six-hour journey by car from San Francisco to Los Angeles will be cut to 2 hours 38 minutes. The 588-mile journey from Sacramento to San Diego will take only 3 hours 35 minutes, with a projected ticket price of just $68. Check out more about the system here, including the interactive map.

The project will cost $40 billion in total, and construction is tentatively slated to begin in 2011. California is hoping to secure $10-12 billion in federal funds, and the remainder of the cost will be covered by private investment or some sort of public-private partnership agreement that has yet to be hammered out. $1 billion of the bond will be spent on improving regional rail systems and linking them to the high-speed network.

There are still a lot of question marks about the funding scheme for this project, and the optimistic projections about the cost and time of construction will likely not be met. But California has taken a giant step toward creating an efficient and reliable passenger rail system.

Hopefully, other states - and the federal government - will follow their lead.

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