By Joel Burgess

America spent about 3.7 billion hours stuck in traffic last year, burning extremely expensive gasoline. At the airports, delays are common. One recent study found that between January and August 2007, one in four flights arrived late. In August alone, 159 flights were kept on the tarmac for more than three hours. Consequently, more than half of U.S. businesses augment commercial air travel with expensive corporate jets and charters.

One alternative: efficient intercity rail travel. Trains use one-fifth less energy than cars or planes. They run in bad weather. They are business-efficient and tourist-friendly. Yet, since the early 1960’s, with the exception of the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., railroad transportation in the U.S. has become largely irrelevant, inadequate, and outdated.

The rest of the industrialized world is investing heavily in its train systems. Europe, as one example, is wiring itself for high-speed rail in order to decrease emissions and increase productivity. Some predict the eventual obsolescence of air travel on the continent.

France: Last fall, a new 200 mph TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) linking Paris to the German border opened, where it intersects Germany’s own high-speed InterCityExpress. In April, an experimental TGV run on the Paris-Strasbourg route hit 357 mph.

Spain: Soon high speed trains will cover the 375 miles between Barcelona and Madrid – the distance between Washington, D.C. and Boston, a 7-hour trip – in 2 ½  hours. In addition, talk persists of a rail tunnel to link Spain with Morocco.

Japan:Japan has developed a 360 mph magnetic-levitation, or maglev, train that rides a cushion of air. Propelled by the electromagnetic force of magnets, these trains are designed as complete transportation systems.

China: China has committed a quarter of a trillion dollars to its railway service. A trip from Shanghai to Beijing – the distance from Chicago to Baltimore, 18 hours by Amtrak – will eventually take 5 hours

The American train system lacks both financial resources and government support. Amtrak, which is federally funded, received a total of $1.3 billion last year. Twenty-five years ago, Amtrak was receiving the same amount: $1.3 billion. Compare that to the $40 billion allocated for highways and the $14 billion for airlines in 2006, and it becomes clear that train travel is a low priority in our country. For the 2008 fiscal year, the Bush Administration proposed $800 million for the railroad, which is a $500 million cut from 2007. In 2005, the President proposed pulling the plug entirely on Amtrak’s subsidy.

Despite its lack of funding, as our airways and highways have slowed, demand for train travel has been increasing. The number of Amtrak riders was up for the fifth year in a row, reaching record levels, despite the fact that a third of trains arrived late last year. In the Northeast, since Amtrak introduced higher-speed Acela trains in 2000, the railroad’s share of 10,000 daily commuters between Washington, D.C., and New York City increased from 45% to 54%. Experts predict that, with the population climbing well past 300 million in the country, the demand for travel will only grow. Severe weather will further add to general transportation turmoil, leading travelers to look for alternatives to air travel.

The key to improvements for the US train system may be federal incentives for state investment, given two successful projects that relied heavily on state funding. Amtrak recently expanded service from Chicago to downstate Illinois and St. Louis, where the number of riders is up about 50%. Likewise, major improvements were made to the Philadelphia-Harrisburg line where attendance also increased.

Now, Congress is considering legislation that would allow the trains to rebuild. The Lautenberg-Lott Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, is designed to completely overhaul the system. The Senate approved the Lautenberg-Lott Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act on October 30, and the bill is now before the House. The legislation would commit $10 billion over four years to develop high-speed, short-haul rail corridors modeled off of the European city-to-city routes. They could run between Washington, D.C. and Charlotte, N.C.; Portland and Seattle; Chicago and Detroit; and Miami and Jacksonville, FL.

“I’m amazed at the rancor about our numbers – they are so small,” says Alex Kummant, Amtrak’s CEO. “It costs about $1.50 for every man, woman and child to sustain this network – one cup of coffee per person. Look at highway congestion, environmental issues, and the capacity of airline travel. For city-to-city transportation, we need passenger rail.”

Source: A Better Way to Travel?
By Peter Richmond
Parade Magazine
Published: November 4, 2007