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Vision: Rail Renaissance -- We May Be About to Take a Huge Step Toward Reviving Train Travel

Obama's proposal to invest $8 billion annually is a gamechanger for passenger trains.

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But the crunch is coming. Without rail, the commission estimated the country will need nine new airports the size of Denver's and a doubling of the current 49,000 miles of interstate highways. By 2040, there will be 100 million more Americans and those folks will concentrate where people live today. Highway and air cannot handle all these people. We need rail.

In the State of the Union address, Obama set a goal of having high speed trains (well, maybe just higher-speed trains) within reach of 80 percent of all Americans in 25 years. It will take that long--likely more--to put back together a rail system the country let go to seed after the private passenger system fell apart in the 1960s, and was largely overwhelmed by air and road transportation (both of which were heavily subsidized by government). Trains became old fashioned, inconvenient or unavailable for most Americans. Amtrak has only been able to maintain a skeletal system, a shadow of a once great passenger system. The freight railroads consolidated and took out capacity and made money hauling not people but things: coal, grain, chemicals and now all those shipping containers full of consumer good made overseas.

But the railroad rights of ways are still out there, sometimes containing only a single track where once there were two or four tracks. In other words, there's room to lay more tracks, to dedicate lines for fast freight and fast passenger trains, and create entire new lines of very fast trains.

Rail is part of the future. It's green. It's high tech. It can be built by Americans in America. And it's inevitable. What it will take is investment over time. That much we ought to be able to figure out.

James McCommons is author of Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (Chelsea Green, 2009).

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