U.S. High-Speed Rail Plans Stuck At The Station

America’s railroad infrastructure is broken, and we need a massive investment in high-speed rail to fix it. 

Rail travel is one area in which Europe is miles ahead of the United States. Passengers can buy a 15-day Eurail pass, which allows them to travel almost anywhere on the continent at any time, for as low as 345 euro, or around $500. That ticket would also give riders access to France’s TGV, a high-speed rail train that travels at average speeds of just under 300 miles per hour. The average person in the United Kingdom travels over 750 kilometers per year by rail; in Germany, that figure rises to close to 1,000 km/year, and in Switzerland it is an astonishing 2,422 km/year. Meanwhile, in the United States, the average rail passenger travels a measly 80 km/year.

In the U.S. it is cheaper for passengers to buy an airplane ticket (exorbitant fees and all) than to take a train along the 400-mile route from Washington, D.C. to Boston. As for taking a cross-country train, don’t even bother — it is practically impossible. Nearly 150 years after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad that linked the east and west coast, our railroad infrastructure is a shell of its former glory.

What happened? Passenger rail is a dying breed in the U.S. today, and even freight rail — for years the most efficient way of moving cargo throughout the country — is barely surviving. There are currently only seven freight railroads that have annual profits over $350 million. Many say that the solution to reviving America’s rail industry is investment in high-speed rail, but such an investment is easier said than done in today’s toxic political environment.

Upon taking office, President Barack Obama promised the nation a functioning network of high-speed rail lines, saying, “Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles per hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.”

Since then, however, the project has hit roadblock after roadblock. There were once plans to build modern rail networks in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida; however, throughout 2011, newly minted Republican Governors Scott Walker, John Kasich, and Rick Scott have one-by-one rejected high-speed rail funds, saying that such an investment in infrastructure is an unconscionable waste of money in today’s weak economy. Now the only major plans for creating a high-speed rail line exist in California, and constant federal and state budget cuts threaten those funds daily. 

Talking about fiscal discipline is all well and good, except when you look at the numbers. In California alone, the high-speed rail project is expected to create over 600,000 construction jobs over the life of the project; with tens of thousands more to come once the line is in service. Yes, it will be expensive to build, but there is no reason to think that it cannot repay those costs. After all, France’s TGV had profits of approximately $1.75 billion in 2007 alone. It is expensive, but that’s what investments are: lots of money up front, for even more in return.

High-speed rail would be good for the economy and good for the country. The only thing stopping such an investment is political gridlock, which means that we will probably be waiting a while for a true high-speed rail network. Next time you see politicians arguing about the most effective way for the government to create jobs, don’t be fooled into thinking that there is nothing we can do. High-speed rail would help the economy and be good for the country, so it’s about time we get on board and make it happen.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons