Getting Rail Spend Right

Map of planned high speed rail lines in Califo...

Map of planned high speed rail lines in California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rail renovations: The most expensive tunnel in the world
The Economist
29 July 2012

I am a big fan of passenger rail, having enjoyed high-speed rail service in Asia and Europe that is far more reliable and comfortable than air travel over the same routes. High-speed rail is no panacea for the US, even if oil prices skyrocket: we are never going to replace transcontinental flights with rail travel. But in busy corridors up to around 900 miles in length, especially those subject to frequent delays, high-speed rail may be viable, if not essential.

The biggest problem, aside from the understandable opposition of troubled U.S. airlines, is cost. Passenger rail is a government-owned public utility, which means that every mile of track laid comes out of the taxpayer’s pockets, and it is getting awfully expensive to lay track in the United States.

Yet there is reason to believe that there is money to be found right in Amtrak’s own budgets. A post in The Economist’s Gulliver blog points out why two huge Amtrak capital improvement projects will spend $17 billion and yield little in terms operational improvement and passenger convenience. One has to wonder what kind of political boondoggle is driving our cash-strapped national railroad to spend $7 billion on a facelift at Washington’s Union Station and $10 billion building a tunnel under Philadelphia.

The same money invested in the California high-speed rail project would cover nearly a quarter of the cost of the entire new-from-scratch system (at least according to the most recent California High Speed Rail Authority estimates.) Leaving aside that particular white elephant, I have no doubt that other uses could be found for $17 billion that would make a large and lasting difference for passengers in many parts of Amtrak’s system.

So why is the money being spent to reinvent the wheel in Washington and Philadelphia?

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