Monday, February 1, 2010

High Speed Hijinks

More on the latest high-speed rail initiative. . . .
The Obama administration recently announced eight billion dollars in grants to build high-speed passenger rail lines in the Northeast, Florida, Texas, the Midwest, and California. Many passenger rail advocates who have been waiting for a moment like this are pleased. I was, too . . . until I saw how fast these "high-speed" trains would be going.
Some of you might think we already have a high-speed train - Amtrak's Acela, which travels the route between Boston and Washington. Right. I've ridden that train before. It's certainly very sleek, it's stylish, and it's faster than the old Metroliner it replaced. But high-speed? No way. A TGV in France can take you from Paris to Lyon - approximately the same distance between Boston and Washington - in two hours; the Acela covers that distance in five hours. Though the Acela can go as fast as 150 mph, it doesn't always go that fast.
Nor am I impressed with the planned 110-mph train from Chicago to St. Louis. It's worth noting that Germany's InterCity Express has trains that go up to 200 mph or more. Theoretically, you cover the the 298-mile distance from Chicago to St. Louis in a little over an hour and a half, while a 110-mph train out of Chicago would take even longer to reach Springfield. The high-speed train sets Obama is touting are faster than conventional U.S. trains, and some would say they'll be "pretty fast," but "pretty fast" isn't going to be fast enough.
It's quite embarrassing to many Americans our intercity passenger trains aren't as fast as trains elsewhere, but even more embarrassing is the fact that our current intercity rail system is so hopelessly antiquated, thanks to decades of shoestring-budget investments and deferred maintenance, that anyone who wants to ride the rails might be better off using a handcar. Japan began running bullet trains in 1964 - 1964! - and our passenger trains have seemingly been traveling at speeds last considered world-class in 1864.
The jobs these new high-speed rail projects will create will likely include openings for conductors, engineers, waitstaff, and cleaning staff - but the dirty little secret is that it won't necessarily create a lot of high-tech engineering jobs, as opposed to the kind of engineers who just drive the damn things. That's because much of the expertise to build high-speed trains is . . . overseas. President Obama wants the new "high-speed" trains in America to use American high-speed rail technology. One observer compared that to Bangladesh using Bangladeshi technology to start its own space program.
Meanwhile, the latest federal budget is projecting a huge deficit. Speaking of Bangladesh - this country is so damn broke, it's too bad George Harrison isn't around to stage a benefit concert for the United States.

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