Ever since Jay Gould, Leland Stanford, and Cornelius Vanderbilt acquired their first legislatures, railroads have been best understood as political networks, rather than as transportation lines. The Obama administration is hyping high-speed rail (HSR) with a $53 billion proposal not because the president is a trainspotter or because he collects back copies of the Official Guide of the Railways (like I do). Rather, it's because politicians understand that the states blew their money on generous pension plans, pretentious sports stadiums, and bridges to nowhere, and now need billions to plug their budget deficits. It's easier to funnel money into tapped–out state capitals under the smoke and mirrors of a feel-good rail project than it is to announce that the federal government stands behind states’ subprime debts. The Government Accounting Office estimates unfunded state liabilities at $405 billion, which is probably what HSR would, in the end, cost. Think of it as the Stimulus Express.
The high-speed scheme is a dream of superfast trains, traveling at 150 m.p.h., linking Portland, Maine, and Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago with St. Louis and Kansas City; the Orlando corridor in Florida (which the governor there has rejected); and express trains in Texas and California. Another way to look at the proposed HSR network is to imagine it connecting the cities and states that Obama needs to carry if he is to have a chance of winning the 2012 election.
Along the high-speed tracks-to-be are stops in Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida and Pennsylvania, which are key 2012 electoral contests. Red states west of the Mississippi, by contrast, will have to wait for Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to arrive three hours late in Dodge City.
Before the U.S. goes into hock over HSR, it might consider making a virtue of low-speed rail. Slow food has it followers. Why not the same for slow trains, since that’s the best that Amtrak can offer? Herewith are ten ideas that will get more (fare-paying) Americans back on the (less-than-perfect) rails. Implementing them wouldn't cost anywhere near $53 billion. Done right, they would even make money.
- Privatize the corridor services between Boston and Washington, Chicago and St. Louis, and San Diego and Los Angeles. But mandate that at least two competing companies operate passenger service on the lines. If American railroads are not interested in the job, French or German national rail companies would bid on the service.
- Sell off the franchise rights to Amtrak passenger cars to mall stores, restaurants, and bars. A movie car could run between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and a discotheque (Pullman 54) could operate, for example, on the night train from New Orleans to Atlanta. I am sure the Outback restaurant chain would want some cars in the West. Who cares about speed if you are having fun or can use the time productively? I would happily ride the Barnes & Noble to Charlotte or the L.L. Bean to see my family in Maine. Why can’t Amtrak add a few FedEx Kinko cars?
- Auction off Amtrak’s sleeping car services to Hyatt, Holiday Inn, Embassy Suites or Motel 6. They know more than Amtrak does about making beds.
- Instead of catering to the gun lobby (Amtrak now allows passengers to pack heat), work with the car rental agencies to create a car-sharing alliance at Amtrak stations to solve the problem of getting anywhere from far-flung places like the Richmond station, which is located miles from downtown.
- Spin off Amtrak Vacations to Outward Bound, the American Youth Hostel Association, Carnival Cruises, the Boy Scouts, or the Green Tortoise (a hippie bus tour company), and let them offer rail cruises to national parks, jazz festivals, fall foliage, major league stadiums, and jamborees.
- Create Amtrak University, and outfit trains to take high school and college students to places like Gettysburg, Little Big Horn, Bunker Hill, the Grassy Knoll, Mark Twain’s museum in Hannibal, Missouri, and Marion, Ohio (where Warren Harding ran the local newspaper).
- Invent a clean steam engine that runs on scrubbed American coal, and market passenger railroads as green travel, locally grown.
- Retrofit some baggage cars to carry bicycles easily and cheaply, and develop a national network of “Rails and Trails,” so that passengers can have a seamless connection between the train and their bikes. At the moment, it’s easier to ship a gun on Amtrak than it is to take a bike.
- Deregulate passenger service, to encourage the flourishing short-line rail industry to carry passengers on some of their freight lines, as the Housatonic R.R. Is proposing to Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
- Invest surplus funds in commuter rail projects, including the proposed Hudson River tunnels that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie turned down. Commuter rail is a proven, if dreary commodity. High-speed rail dreams are the stuff of State of the Union addresses, but the top ten commuter systems together transport about 1.63 million passengers daily (Amtrak has 74,000 a day).
Most commuter systems need nicer stations, easier links to other lines and buses, and to provide comfort zones with better coffee (not a federal budget concern), clean restrooms, and Wifi. I love the coming Long Island Rail Road link to Grand Central and the new BikePorts of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
Had the United States integrated high-speed rail into the Interstate Highway system — imagine tracks in the median strips — the idea might have worked. Imposed on a society addled with cars and planes, it has the risk of becoming a cost-overrun nightmare of $82 million a mile versus $2.4 million for traditional rails.
Much of the infrastructure is already in place to develop a national revival of low-speed rail, at a fraction of the costs of subsidized HSR. The trains we have can be privatized, franchised, hot spotted, double-bedded, and showered, and no one will care about the engine speed. To save billions, if not to make money, why can’t the U.S. subscribe to the words of author Paul Theroux: “Better to go first class than to arrive.”
Photo by Jeramey Jannene of train tracks right outside of Havenwoods State Forest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical essays. He is also editor of Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine.