Let's Bring US Rail Travel into the 21st Century
I was watching a video of the fastest high-speed trains in the world when a painfully sobering thought occurred to me: Trains in the United States are so far behind the times that we are starting to look like a third-world country. Some of today’s trains travel in excess of 200 miles per hour, while even Amtrak’s Acela has a top speed of only 150 miles per hour.
The reasons for the US lagging behind in passenger rail service are very real but not insurmountable. First and foremost is the need for dedicated track for high-speed trains. You cannot have a 200 mph train traveling on the same track as a 70 mph train. Track condition and congestion determine speed.
So, too, is the fact that 70 percent of tracks in the US are owned by the freight companies. Amtrak owns only 30 percent, and they are limited to the Northeast Corridor and the West Coast. The owners of the track determine which trains get priority clearance, and they choose their own trains, not Amtrak’s.
So, why doesn’t Amtrak buy or build its own tracks? Good question! From a business perspective, one must invest capital if one wishes to expand, yet one cannot invest capital if one does not have capital. Amtrak has been operating in the red every year since its inception in 1971. The idea is that Congress would subsidize Amtrak, yet each year, it appropriates less and less. The same thing happened to the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). Now, PBS programs advertise their sponsors’ goods and services, albeit to a lesser extent than the commercial stations do.
Perhaps, Amtrak should advertise the companies that build its rolling stock: “Your ride today will be aboard [brand name] cars pulled by [brand name] diesel-electric locomotives.”
Perhaps, Amtrak should hold contests and run campaigns to raise the necessary funds to build a high-speed rail: “Enter our name-the-train contest and be the first to zip cross-country with stops only in Chicago, Kansas City, and Denver before you reach beautiful San Francisco.” Build up enough publicity, and corporations will be bidding like crazy to get a piece of the high-speed rail pie.
I suspect there’s much more support for rail travel than Amtrak and Washington want us to think there is. Look at the sold-out accommodations on existing trains. Look at the vast number of people who turn out for railway festivals and ride on excursion trains. Look at the people who gather at train stations on a Friday night to watch the trains roll through. Look at the people who post and watch railroading videos on YouTube. Oh, yes! The interest is there! We just need to rein it in and let it help build our first truly high-speed railroad.