If the EU can do it, why can’t the US?

If the EU can do it, why can’t the US?

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Americans are flying while more and more Europeans are earth-bound—and getting where they want to go much faster and in greater comfort. Europeans are taking high-speed trains for business and vacations because the trains—and the infrastructure to support them—exist already and are constantly being upgraded (which means funded).

Why arrive for a one-hour flight at least an hour before take-off, go through the hassles of airport security, the obnoxiousness of airline food, the crowding of airline seats, and get off the plane in the middle of nowhere and pay a stiff cab fare to get where you’re going? Crossing the pond is one thing—the trains don’t do that yet, though there is talk of a tunnel between Morocco and Gibraltar and the Eurostar has been running under the English Channel since 1994. But for trips over land, and really not that far apart, trains make a lot of sense.

The best thing you can say about airports is they give you lots of annoying ways to pass the time waiting—like additional security checks to get to a frequent travelers club, shopping in over-priced stores, more fast food than you ever wanted to look at, let alone eat, and people who look as if they should be in a bus station at midnight: I always wonder where they came from and where they’re going. If you walk into the airport’s “smoking allowed” room, you don’t even need to light up. Bingo, you’ll have a contact high and your clothes will betray you as someone who’s indulging in the odious weed.

High-speed trains in Europe, traveling at 300 kilometers an hour (about 180 mph), are commonplace and widespread. People lobby to have lines installed close enough to their homes to up their real estate values and diminish their commuting time, just not so close that they can hear the trains or feel their rumble. And mile for mile (or kilometer for kilometer), they cause substantially less pollution than planes or cars.

It gets better. The European Union enacted legislation last year that will require national rail systems to open up to operators from other countries by 2010 and, equally important, to have train sets that are interoperable, unlike the old Orient Express that had to change engines are border crossings because of different rail gauges. Ultimately, there will be a pan-European high-speed train system.

Do you think we’ll ever have anything like it in the United States? If I were a gambling lady, I’d say no—and give you odds. Amtrak has been running a popular and pretty good train service in the Northeast for years, but it has never had the funding it needs, despite its many eager riders. In part the problem is that it is only “pretty good,” not first rate. The Acela, the fastest of Amtrak’s trains, is designed to travel up to 150 miles per hour, but can do so only on about 20 miles of track because elsewhere the track bed is just not able to handle the speeds. Often the Acela travels no faster than the standard Metroliner, between 75 and 120 miles per hour.

Still, not so bad, but we’re talking about a corridor running from Washington to Boston, about 450 miles—densely populated to be sure, but the country is more than 3000 miles across. Despite advocacy for a truly national network of fast trains, nothing has happened, in part because the federal government, the only entity with the ability to pay the freight, is not buying in—and has been starving Amtrak. And there’s politics, too. The people who love roads—contractors, trucking companies, and pork-bearing members of Congress—have more clout than the train lovers.

Perhaps gasoline at four bucks a pop and the endless hassles and delays of flying will begin to change some minds. Mark Yachmetz, of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) points out that Amtrak ridership is up 17% this year over last year. Representative John Mica (Republican from Florida) spearheaded a bill that passed in the House for a privately financed high-speed rail line between Washington and New York. Mica expects his proposal, part of the House’s Amtrak funding bill, to be debated in the Senate in September. But there are questions—and doubts—about private financing of something so costly, and Congress by and large has been at best indifferent. And this is an election year—not the time infrastructure gets a lot of attention.

But, who knows? Advocates are monitoring a high-speed rail project in California. Voters will be asked whether or not a $10 billion bond should be issued to finance the first segment of a statewide high-speed rail system. If California moves ahead, the rest of the country could follow, Yachmetz says. "If a state like California says, ‘This is real and we’re willing to put our money behind it,’ it will help focus attention on the matter." Well, isn’t it about time?

And remember this, too. California was the first state to require catalytic converters and a number of safety devices on cars. Being so big, about one American in eight lives there, California has proved it can not only set trends but actually make policy. Maybe what Californians did for cars they can do for high-speed rail travel. What a thought!

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