13 January 2009

Driving That Train

Here's a sign of progress that with any luck we'll soon be seeing in our own country: Spain, which spent much of the past half-millennium as a symbol of stodginess and faded glory, has come barreling into the 21st century with a network of high speed trains that put to shame most other rail systems in Europe and make a complete mockery of the United States, where the malign neglect of the past several administrations has seen our transportation infrastructure crumble into desuetude and decay.

President-elect Obama has talked a good game about plowing resources into mass transit, and high speed trains linking major cities would be an outstanding place to start. The distances between Spanish cities is comparable to that between many American cities, and as the article notes, rail travel is quickly taking market share away from the much more wasteful and environmentally destructive airlines. Who in their right mind would subject him or herself to the ordeal of getting to an airport 30 miles out of town, spending an hour or two waiting, being searched, waiting some more, only to be delivered to another airport 30 miles out of town when they had the alternative of boarding a train in the center of town and being transported to the center of town at their destination in more or less the same amount of time a plane would take, minus the strip searches, air traffic delays, and cattle-car-in-the-sky ambiance of modern air travel?

A high speed rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles has been bandied about for decades, and always ends up getting killed by politicians and/or short-sighted business interests; at present, the voter-approved funds are in place, and the project is close to getting underway, unless of course someone manages to use the current recession/depression as an excuse for postponing it again. You want infrastructure investment? You want stimulus? By putting in high speed rail between California's two major metropolitan areas, you'd be creating a 400 mile long economic opportunity zone. Ditto for the corridor between Boston and Washington; a decent Spanish-style high speed train could cover that distance in not much more than two hours, as opposed to the eight hours (or more, depending on traffic) it takes to drive or the six and a half hours that the fastest existing train, the laughably misnamed and doubly overpriced Acela "Express" takes. Even the airlines couldn't compete with that.

The auto companies will of course, lobby like crazy to kill any such development, claiming instead that we'll need more expressways if they're to be able to continue selling their clunky Detroit behemoths, and arguing that continued government subsidies for the automobiles combined with a starvation diet for railroads is the only way to revive the moribund auto industry. Never mind that the world's most successful auto industry, and the one that has very nearly put our own domestic one out of business, is located in a country that is itself crisscrossed with some of the world's best high speed rail lines. Any of you planning on writing a letter to Obama to congratulate him on his inauguration, why not throw in a little reminder that he promised us more railways and we sure as hell need them.

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