I have a fascination with America’s train system — maybe because it stinks, and I can’t figure out exactly why this country still has such an antiquated and ineffective passenger railway. Whether it’s the regional trains or Amtrak, they’re all bad.
Amtrak’s Acela trains, which carry people up and down the northeast corridor — our top-notch, “high-speed” trains — are about the equivalent of the trains I traveled on in Canada 25 years ago. Don’t even get me started on the system in Europe or Japan or other developed countries.
When you consider how important the railroad was for the development of this vast land, you would think trains would be in our blood — but no. Or maybe it’s just a sign that we are bad at prioritizing infrastructure needs.
I understand that it all costs money — a lot of money. And nobody wants to pay for it. But that just tells me it’s not important enough. Which makes no sense, because there are many short- and long-term benefits of an efficient railway: It significantly reduces energy usage and costs, it relieves airport congestion and creates competition, it saves lives otherwise lost on highways, it assists with job creation and expansion, it links businesses and communities across states and regions. Yet it seems that every attempt to create or improve the rail system ends up in the toilet — often for political reasons.
Take, for example, the recent news about Florida’s Governor Rick Scott, who canceled plans for a high-speed train line between Orlando and Tampa. (I’ve driven between those two cities, and yes, a train would be a relief.)
Scott says the plans would cost the state too much, even with $2.4 billion in federal help. There’s more to the story — you can read it here — but it leaves me wondering if this is one of those things that’s best handled on the federal level, not the state, with private businesses assuming some costs and operating expenses.
Great railways exist in other countries because they are federal projects. I’m not advocating for a 100% federally funded train system here, but I don’t think we’ll ever have high-speed, efficient trains if we wait for 50 different states to take up the charge.
President Obama allocated $53 billion in his latest budget for railway projects across the country, and already two Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin said no. I realize that it’s complicated, but if we constantly play politics and refuse to settle for anything but the perfect solution, our trains will forever be stuck in a limbo where they feel like something out of my grandparents’ generation. And that makes this train lover a sad little traveler.