Obama's rail plan speeds ahead

This week, President Obama unveiled his plan to develop a high-speed passenger rail (HSR) system in the United States. Although HSR has long been a talking point for the President, this is the first instance in which he has offered specifics.

The new rail plan is three-fold: initially, it will pour investment into infrastructure upgrades that have been approved but not yet funded. Later, it will fund high-speed rail planning and, subsequently, construction. In the process, it will also seek to improve rail service along existing lines, increasing the quality of current rail service and laying the track (as it were) for faster, more efficient rail in the future.

One of the shortcomings of the current rail structure lies in its usage. The United States doesn't have a dedicated passenger rail network; as it stands, passenger trains share track with freight trains. In addition to potential delays, this also means that, even when passenger trains are equipped for high-speed travel, they are often limited by other rail traffic. For example, the Acela, which runs from Boston to Washington DC, could go up to 150 miles per hour, but rarely exceeds 80 because of congestion. By comparison, Japanese trains regularly reach speeds of 180 mph, and the European standard is 125 mph.

In many ways, Obama's rail plan could not come at a better time. Many Americans seem to be seriously reconsidering their transportation purchases. In a recent Time magazine article, Bill Saporito noted that car purchases were down 18 percent in 2008. The average car on the road is currently a record 9.4 years old. Clearly, millions of Americans are waiting to see how the economic winds blow before they line up for their next big car purchase. The development of a decent public transportation grid could push some to pony up for lighter, more efficient cars that would be great for short commutes but insufficient for long-distance travel.

Saporito predicts that, sometime in the next three years, there will be a major surge in automobile purchases. His reasoning is that, while a combination of unemployment and economic uncertainty has massively slowed down auto purchases in the last few years, the overall path of consumption has, historically, risen. On average the "replacement rate" for cars is somewhere around 12 million per year and, with sales expected to dip below 10 million by 2010, the inevitable rebound should be massive. Add in the scads of baby boomer offspring who are reaching car-buying age, and you get a pulse-quickening bonanza that promises to save the car industry.

Three years gives the Obama administration a tiny bit of breathing room to pursue its goal of fundamentally changing American patterns of behavior. Bandying phrases like "We are the change we've been waiting for" and pushing for responsible consumerism and energy conservation, the White House seems to be trying to establish a strong moral counterbalance to the "greed is good" ethos that has ruled much of the last 28 years. In many ways, a renewed push for passenger rail could be a cornerstone for this plan. After all, an efficient, convenient, and inexpensive mode of transportation would be a great alternative to gas-guzzling interstate automobile and air travel.

For decades, passenger rail in the United States has been a joke: while the government has spent billions of dollars on airports and highways, it has allowed Amtrak to wither on the vine. In fact, on a passenger-by-passenger basis, former Amtrak president Alex Kummant estimated that the federal government has spent approximately 15 times more money on automobiles than on trains. Spending on air travel has been even more impressively out-sized. While many critics have noted that rail travel is unprofitable, the same could easily be said of cars and planes: If drivers and airline passengers were forced to absorb the full cost of their travel, transportation in the United States would, effectively, shut down.

The bad news is that the $13 billion that the President has budgeted for the development of high-speed rail is only a fraction of what the program will eventually cost. However, it represents a revolutionary expansion in rail funding, and suggests that the Obama administration may well be serious about developing high-speed rail in the United States. Here's hoping it works.

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