I love trains. My husband has worked in and around railroads for most of his professional life, and a lot of his knowledge and appreciation has been filtered down to me. I've ridden them, followed them, photographed them, written about them. I'm a fan.
And I think President Obama's high-speed rail proposal is nuts. Not just because of the money, although that's a big objection (about five-times-the-proposed-$53-billion big). It's the proposal of someone who knows nothing of how American railroads are built, are run, or make a profit.
My train riding includes Amtrak, and Amtrak is a fun way to travel, as long as you don't care when you leave or when you arrive. Since most travelers do care about those things, Amtrak does not have a large customer base and roars deeper into the red every year. It has escaped the ax time after time because of too many jobs involved, or too many riders dependent on the service (like, maybe, 12), or even perhaps a touch of nostalgia for the great age of rail travel. Nostalgia, I suspect, had something to do with the creation of Amtrak in the first place. No one yearns for the great age of covered wagon travel, but I guess there's a limit.
High-speed rail would be Amtrak on steroids. Almost literally, for most plans call for upgrading parts of the existing system to run faster and more often. Vice President Joe Biden has been a cheerleader for years, and the president has apparently caught the bug: "Imagine, he said in a 2009 speech announcing his plan, "boarding a train in the center of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes." And imagine there's no countries, or nothing to kill or die for, or-no wait, wrong pipe dream. The State of the Union speech devoted a paragraph to giving "80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail . . . for some trips, it will be faster than flying-without the pat-down." Good one, Mr. President. Though what makes anyone imagine that mass rail transit would escape the grope of the TSA?
Here's a quick primer on government and American railroads: The government heavily subsidized (and somewhat shadily) the first transcontinental line, while encouraging other entrepreneurs to get in the game. Within 50 years, three more transcontinental lines were built and quickly went bankrupt because of a breezy unconcern for practical considerations: mainly sustaining a thousand miles of track over territory that was largely uninhabited. (On the positive side, those superfluous lines provided jobs for thousands of European and Chinese immigrants.) After the madness passed, railroads paid their subsidy debt many times over by hauling government ordnance at discount rates and submitting to a host of Interstate Commerce Commission regulations. In the early 1980s, the Staggers Act lifted some of those regulations, allowing railroads the freedom to tear up lines, sell rolling stock, and merge operation-all of which helped them overcome the doldrums of the 1970s and start making a profit again. Railroads can leave package delivery to the trucks and concentrate on what they do best: hauling manufactured goods in containers and large-volume commodities like coal.
A network of high-speed rail like Obama proposes (with lines fanning out from Chicago, up from Texas, and down both coastlines) ignores the most basic element of railroading: the track. Most track in the United States is rated for speeds no higher than 70 mph (or 80 max). To support speeds of 110 or more, it would have to be upgraded, at huge expense and inconvenience for the trains already running on it. Once upgraded, passenger trains would be given right-of-way over freight, as Amtrak trains already are, disrupting further the most economical and environmentally friendly transit system in the world and forcing common carriers to bear expenses that they would pass on to shippers. That would inevitably translate into higher utility and product costs for us. And if current Amtrak ridership is any indication, those extra passenger trains-whizzing by in a blur while valuable commodities simmer on a siding-would be mostly empty.
Some have compared high-speed rail to the Interstate highway system, and Obama to Eisenhower. There are a lot of problems with that comparison, but here's the main one: Eisenhower probably understood that Americans liked cars and would drive cars on whatever roads were provided. It's hard to know what Obama understands.