Thursday, November 28, 2013

Amtrak Shrugged

It looks like a scene out of Atlas Shrugged. A high speed train carrying passengers from DC to Baltimore in fifteen minutes, to New York City in one hour. At 315 miles per hour, it would be the fastest train on the planet. And it could be America's for free.

The Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe recently offered to build the first leg of the new line, DC to Baltimore, entirely free of charge.

Unable to successfully market the wild magnetic levitation technology, Japan is hoping that America's participation will excite other customers. The catch? We'd have to complete the rest of the Northeast Corridor ourselves.

The offer is more than enticing. America's involvement in the rail industry has been lackluster for years, even between DC and Boston where it's most successful. Large cities routinely struggle with state governments to maintain their subways, lightrails, and trollies because, let's face it, most of the nation just doesn't need it.

The debacle isn't unique to the United States. The car has made it simply easier for most people to get around, and highways have allowed us to spread out to locations that trains just don't go and aren't needed.

Where rail transit abounds, so do taxes and socialism. Which is why conservatives fear the word "rail," and many democrats skirt the subject. They're money pits. Dreamy, sleek money pits.

The TNEM, or The Northeast Maglev, would be a Superconducting Maglev train, or SCMAGLEV. Understandably concerned, Amtrak is worried what kind of affect the TNEM would have on its slow growth. Though the forty miles between DC and Baltimore would be built with Japanese money, the New York City extension would be costly. Funds would likely be siphoned from Amtrak's system, still struggling to find success outside the Northeast.

However, Prime Minister Abe has pointed out that the TNEM is not intended to replace Amtrak. Quite the contrary, it's intended to compete. It's a tough sell. America's love affair with a competitive rail industry died long ago. It's hard to say if we'd want to relight that fire, if it's even possible.

The truth is Amtrak's trains aren't slow. The Acela can easily exceed 200 miles per hour. The problem is it shares tracks with regional lines, so our high speed trains rarely move faster than a car.

With no competition Amtrak easily sold the Acela to the public hiding the fact that the existing infrastructure would need to be replaced for it to be worth a damn. For more than the cost of a flight to JFK you can get to Manhattan twenty minutes faster than a much cheaper regional train ticket.

However the system is subsidized and not configured for competition. Tax dollars keep Amtrak running, not ticket sales. The TNEM wouldn't just poise itself to compete with Amtrak, a Northeast SCMAGLEV could shut down Amtrak's entire national network.

It's an exciting proposal, and the free offer incredibly tempting. But weighing the potential outcome for the national passenger rail system, America's attitude towards rail travel needs to change, funding has to increase, and Amtrak would have to succeed outside the Northeast Corridor. Prime Minister Abe's offer comes with more than a caveat. It's an advertisement for Japan's technology, one that states, "if the United States can embrace rail travel again, any country can."

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