All aboard, finally

Our view : Billions allocated to high-speed rail represent a (belated) beginning

March 03, 2009

It doesn't take a train buff to recognize kindred spirits roaming the halls of Congress and the White House have fallen in love with the possibilities of passenger rail. Not only does the stimulus effort include $8 billion for the development of high-speed rail, but President Barack Obama included an additional five-year, $5 billion state grant program in the budget he unveiled last week.

With the similarly elevated funding given Amtrak - formerly known as the industrial world's most perpetually insolvent railroad - it's likely that some people have expectations of Japanese-style bullet or French TGV trains zooming across the American landscape any day now.

Not so fast. As in literally not so fast.

While Mr. Obama's attitude toward passenger rail is refreshing and the billions appropriated will be helpful, the reality is that the United States is so far behind in its rail infrastructure that the money is not much more than a down payment on a down payment.

Much of Amtrak's new funding will have to be devoted to maintenance and equipment replacement. The system has been neglected too long for anything else.

The cost of creating from scratch a 200-mile-per-hour passenger train network is high because existing U.S. rail lines are wholly inadequate for the task. It would be like running the Indy 500 on a rutted, cobblestone street shared with the equivalent of horse-drawn carriages - pokey freight trains.

Even in the Northeast, where Amtrak's Acela Express trains are this country's closest thing to high-speed rail, the limitations are daunting. The Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel on the city's west side is a 19th-century stone relic where trains are limited to a 30-mph crawl.

That doesn't mean high-speed rail is not worth doing. If the country is going to reduce dependency on oil and address climate change, an investment in passenger rail is essential. Rail is the most fuel-efficient ground transportation yet devised and the best for the environment - if a true network of service can be achieved.

What America needs is a long-term commitment to high-speed rail, not a brief flirtation. It isn't how much Mr. Obama puts in the budget in 2009 but whether that investment is allowed to grow - just as the nation's interstate highways took decades to realize. Rail service will similarly take time to plan and build (a process that ought to center on the Northeast, where demand for service is highest), but the president's contribution is a hopeful sign that the process has finally started.

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