Marketplace Scratch Pad

Daydreaming of train travel

Scott Jagow Jan 6, 2010

I’m sitting in the railway station. Got a ticket for my destination. Hmmm-mmm. Maybe it’s because I’ve been listening to Simon and Garfunkel or because I’m dreading my next plane ride. Or because the Vice President is writing about it. Or because China just introduced the world’s fastest service. Whatever it is, I’m daydreaming of trains.

Vice President Joe Biden makes the case for rail spending at the Huffington Post:

Support for Amtrak must be strong–not because it is a cherished American institution, which it is–but because it is a powerful and indispensable way to carry us all into a leaner, cleaner, greener 21st century.

Consider that if you shut down Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, it is estimated that to compensate for the loss, you’d have to add seven new lanes of highway to Interstate 95. When you consider that it costs an average of $30 million for one linear mile of one lane of highway, you see what a sound investment rail travel is. And that’s before you factor in the environmental benefits of keeping millions and millions of cars off the road.

Mr. Biden doesn’t say what one linear mile of rail costs, but it can be extremely expensive. Seattle’s new light rail system is said to cost $179 million per mile. That may be an anomaly, but it’s an example of the overruns these kinds of projects can produce.

The Vice President is also fortunate to live in one of the few places in this large country where rail is effective at moving people in a somewhat timely fashion. And he might cherish Amtrak, but it has a dubious history at best.

On the other hand, China’s a pretty big country, too. The Chinese just debuted a super high-speed train (220 mph) that gets from point A to point B — 664 miles — in three hours. That’s about the distance from Washington to Atlanta. On Amtrak’s 80-mph trains, it’s a 13-hour ride. NPR lays out the financials:

While the United States has allocated $13 billion for the construction of high-speed rail over the next five years, China plans to spend $300 billion in the next decade to build the world’s most extensive and advanced high-speed rail network.

$300 billion is a lot of money, but it’s less than half what TARP or the stimulus package cost. AIG’s bailout is worth up to $180 billion. We’ve invested billions more in permanently-broken car outfits. Not to mention that our new highways quickly become overloaded and require seemingly endless future investment. As for Amtrak’s history, many argue it is perpetually underfunded.

Then there are the intangible benefits of train travel, which get more appealing every time I have to take my shoes off at the airport. Even the worst train travel stories have appeal:

When I fly, I tend to lose things: my bags, my wallet, my temper, my dignity, etc. Traveling with Amtrak is all about gains — friendships and experiences, mostly. What stands out, when I think about all the time I’ve spent on trains this last week and half isn’t the seven hours of sitting in northern California after our train collided with a fallen tree, or the night I spent in a hotel (Amtrak paid for it) in Sacramento after I missed my connecting train, or the 4 hours it took to remove our dining car from the train when its wheels accumulated too much ice in Utah — it’s the people I met and the things I saw.

Here’s another story about the people you meet and the things you see.

This country spends a ton of money on things that don’t seem to do a whit for our quality of life. The dream of a rail network persists, but we talk about rail a lot more than we actually build it.

Is it time to stop daydreaming and seriously invest in it?

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