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Saturday, March 14, 2009

19th Century Transportation in the 21st Century

New England travelers should benefit from faster, more frequent and safer train travel with an extra $1.3 billion pumped into the long-struggling Amtrak, half of it directed to the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, the Obama administration announced yesterday.
The lede in today's AMTRAK article in The Boston Globe.

This is good news, as far as it goes.  I am a little dubious about the "faster" part of it.  The AMTRAK board and the leader of the board, former Governor Michael Dukakis, seems to think that 210 mph is high speed.  With Europe and Asia running at 250 mph, it is time to set our sights on 300 mph.  That would make rail very competitive with airliners on the Boston to New York run.

I have taken the train from Route 128 Station to Union Station in Washington.  It takes a long time--about eight hours.  That is not competitive.  I can hop on a shuttle at Logan airport and be in a meeting in the DC area two and a half hours later.  But, high speed rail, real high speed rail, would make a difference.

On the other hand, our Vice President, Joe Biden, had this to stay in the article:
"Amtrak has never been at the trough," said Vice President Joe Biden, rejecting the long-held conservative position that the nation's rail system is a money-losing series of pet projects.
The fact is that AMTRAK has been at the trough since the beginning.  Granted, our AMTRAK is the most efficiently run subsidized rail system in the world, but it is still subsidized.

All transportation is subsidized one way or another.  AMTRAK gets a big chunk, but so do airlines--the FAA budget request for Fiscal Year 2009 is $14.643 billion, per the DOT web site.  That is about the final cost of the Big Dig, which is a subsidy to drivers.  The US Army's Corps of Engineers provides dredging, which is a subsidy to both international and coastal shipping.  Coast Guard Ice Breakers on the Great Lakes in winter time.

But, back to AMTRAK.  The Acela Express is not really "high speed" rail.  But, it could do 150 mph IF we had the roadbed that would support the speed.  We don't.  If we are to achieve the productivity Senatory John Kerry talks about in the article, we are going to have to invest in fixing the roadbed for the Acela here in the Northeast Corridor.  But, more important, we are going to have to invest in real "high speed" rail.

Regards  --  Cliff

1 comment:

The New Englander said...


One more wrench I'd like to throw into all this -- the prohibitive cost of Amtrak.

Amtrak can be great because of the major advantages it offers -- unlike a plane, you've got tons of elbow room to work and space to move around, no long security lines, and you get dropped off right in the center of the city, so no hassle with rental cars, taxis, bus transfers, or clogged highways to get to your *real* destination. A lot of that chips away at the time advantage the plane provides, esp. if you can use all the time aboard productively..

Unlike a car, it lets you relax and just enjoy the time to read, write, unwind, whatever..

..but where Amtrak loses for me is the prohibitive cost. I relied on Amtrak quite a bit for getting around the northeast corridor before I owned a car (never had a car until commissioning at age 24), and now that I have a car, it's just hard for me to justify the sky-high cost of the train when compared to flying or driving.

I just wish there was some way the cost of train travel could come down.