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

Editor's note: Check out our recent story the future of high speed rail in the U.S.

When I was researching my book on the American rail system, I interviewed William Withuhn, Curator of the history of technology and transportation at the Smithsonian Institution. He said: "America doesn't get rail transportation. The politicians don't understand trains because most have never ridden one. The press is all caught up in Amtrak not making a profit as if that's somehow remarkable. Roads and airports don't make money either. In the 1960s, we had same inane arguments. Critics saying: rail is not like other transportation systems, America is too big and not like other countries. People won't ride trains here...In the meantime, other countries--lots of them now--have moved ahead and built these sleek, efficient and awesome machines. They get rail, but we don't."

Now, maybe two years after my conversation with Withuhn at the Smithsonian, America may be coming around.

On Tuesday, Vice President "Amtrak Joe" Biden and Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation, stood in 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and proposed making passenger rail part of the next transportation bill, which would mean carving out about $8 billion annually or $57 billion--over the lifetime of the bill--for intercity passenger rail service. This has never been done before.

The money would go to states that put up 20 percent matching funds (just as they do now for highway projects) to lay more track, build signaling systems, bridges and tunnels, buy locomotives and passenger cars, and partner with Amtrak to increase service. The money would increase the capacity of the national rail infrastructure--which is privately owned by freight railroads--to accommodate both more passenger and freight trains.

If this proposal comes to pass--it's part of the Obama Administration's push for infrastructure and more American jobs--it would be a game changer for passenger rail. No doubt when this all is introduced in the President's budget next week, there will be cries from the rail doubters in Congress --mostly Republicans--that this is nothing more than a boondoggle, a wasted effort to prop up Amtrak, or just another example of excessive government spending. Even some rail supporters have trouble with it, such as John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Mica believes any federal dollars ought to be channeled first into the Northeast Corridor to build a 200 mph train there.

But that would be a mistake. There are many areas in the country besides the Northeast--especially in California, the Midwest Hub around Chicago, and along the East Coast south to Florida--that would benefit from investment and faster train service. America doesn't need a bullet train as much as it simply needs more trains. If anything, Biden clearly set some realistic goals for train speeds--which is to say, yes, some regions may build a a 200-mile an hour train, while other states may do well with 90 or 100 mph service.

The $8 billion dollar figure didn't come out of nowhere. The number first cropped up in the latter part of the Bush Administration when Congress created the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission to study where the country should concentrate its transportation dollars. At first, the commission (headed by Mary Peters, the DOT secretary) wasn't going to study rail, assuming roads and air could meet America's transportation needs. But some members pushed for a rail study, and in the end, the commissionrecommended spending $225 billion annually on infrastructure, of which $8 billion would go to rail. It also recommended a gradual increase in the gas tax up to 50 cents per gallon. Peters and a couple other commissioners voted against the final report. And though President Obama wants more train service and spending on infrastructure, he hasn't expressed interest in raising the gas tax and likely won't during the run-up to the next election.

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.

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