High-Speed Example

November 20, 1994

The first passenger train through the new tunnel under the English Channel was a historic event. It also sends an important lesson to the U.S.

Continental travelers see the service as the latest link in a network of comfortable, fast trains through western Europe. High-speed trains not only compete effectively with short-haul aircraft, they do so economically. At a time when Amtrak is battling to stay alive, its counterparts are flourishing. The circumstances are not exactly the same, but their success needs to be studied here.

The story of railroading in France and its neighbors is more than technological innovation. What had been state-owned rail systems are gradually privatizing. More significant for the U.S., in some systems the government continues to own and maintain the roadbed while private companies own and operate rolling stock. This has dramatically reduced the drain on national treasuries and freed passenger services of suffocating bureaucracies. The result is a tripling of passenger-miles on high speed trains in the past decade while overall rail travel remained flat.

Over here, Amtrak earns only 80 percent of its operating costs and diverts money that should go to maintain and upgrade physical facilities to cover the deficit. Equipment is wearing out half again as fast as it can be replaced. Amtrak is barely managing to maintain service that meets the standards of 20 years ago -- high speed on Amtrak is 125 miles an hour -- while European counterparts are cutting running times by more than half.

Passenger rail service can't survive here, even in the Northeast where it is most popular and makes the most economic sense, without major infusions of capital. But it must flourish, if only because the world of the 21st century will demand it. Perhaps a Republican Congress hostile to public investment will force transportation officials to contemplate new approaches. Traveling comfortably between central London and downtown Paris in three hours might give them the right inspiration.

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