High-speed rail is dead in America. In Slate, Will Oremus does a postmortem that isn't as clueless as most of what one would find in the mainstream media. It makes some points familiar to my readers: The Obama plan wouldn't have been genuine high-speed rail, except in Florida, merely higher-speed; the funds were insufficient and dolled out helter-skelter across the country rather than focusing on corridors likely to bring success, etc. I would add that the Florida HSR was foolish from the get-go, aimed at a suburbianized, car-crazy state, rather than, say, California, the Pacific Northwest or the Northeast Corridor, where train travel is already popular and in demand.
In any event, this is a catastrophe for the nation.
On a general level, it is another sign that America just can't do great things any longer. It's an emphatic indication of the nihilistic paralysis of our politics, with one of our major political parties captured by extremists whose mission is pure destruction. It highlights yet another blow to the commons. It's a lost economic opportunity. High-speed rail would have created tens of thousands of jobs, for operating and not just construction. It had the potential, properly done, to seed new industries here to build the trains. It is exactly the kind of infrastructure spending that would stimulate an economy that as things stand faces years of high unemployment and stagnation. From an environmental standpoint, rail is much less destructive than cars and moves far more people with a small carbon footprint.
Mr. Obama and the Democrats never approached rail with a sustained and focused strategy. In addition to high-speed rail, we need the frequent and convenient rail service operating below the 150-mile-per-hour range. In other words, rebuilding Amtrak. In my lifetime, the United States had the most advanced passenger rail system in the world; one could go to virtually all cities and larger towns by train. That was all lost. Amtrak has faced a battle for its life since being created in 1971, and under-funding has fed service problems creating a self-fulfilling feedback loop of perceived failure. Perceived: The remaining trains are highly popular, much to the chagrin of Amtrak haters such as wealthy Republican John Sidney McCain III.
A serious approach would also have emphasized building commuter rail in major cities, as well as shoring it up where it already exists. In addition to providing jobs, it would have retrofitted suburbia for a high-cost energy future that is baked in the cake, giving people options beyond single-occupancy car trips. Again, where this is done it is highly popular, including the Sounder trains in Seattle. Adding service to already popular passenger rail corridors, such as the Cascades in the Northwest and Surfliner in Southern California would have also yielded big results, as well as providing templates that other metropolitan areas could have copied. All this would not only have provided for the future, but have helped fill the huge demand hole left by the recession and engaged Americans in a productive enterprise that didn't involve finance or real-estate hustles.
Instead, local transit and state corridors continue a yearly fight for funding just to stay alive. Plans early in Mr. Obama's term to strengthen Amtrak have been thwarted by the Tea Party takeover of the House, and now Amtrak is fighting for its life again. Mitt Romney promises to kill it. Various Republicans want to turn the Northeast Corridor over to Wall Street speculators, which ensures that 40 years of hard work to build a successful passenger rail spine will be looted and thrown away.
Most Americans won't notice these lost opportunities. They don't get out much or realize America's growing backwardness. They don't comprehend that a modern rail network, including high-speed rail, is a given is every populous advanced nation. They are stuck in 1970, when gas was cheap, when we had 100 million fewer people and less congested urban areas, when in many places it was like those car ads on television that show only one vehicle on an empty road. Somehow they think highways and airlines aren't subsidized; they think many things that are not true, including this. Every transportation system is subsidized. In our case, we just have fewer choices. It's an outrage that there are not frequent and fast trains linking, say, Phoenix and LA, Phoenix and Tucson. No, they're happy to spend a huge portion of our lives stuck in traffic, changing the planet for the worse.
Too bad that reality, in the form of oil scarcity and higher prices, increasing congestion and, ooops, climate change, will throttle these American delusions.
The big victors are the fossil fuel industries and car-makers, which have the money to lobby for what they want in Washington. Rail has none of this political power. Too bad no one was able to push the fear button and make Americans realize that our regressiveness, including lack of an advanced passenger rail system, is a national security issue. So here we are. Stuck. It's a hell of a way to run a railroad and a country.