Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Obama's Train Set

There's something about a train.

Our President has garnered some serious seed money to build/restore the train system in this country. It's an $8 billion bet that once people get a feel for what real train travel could be like, they will want more of it.

Having traveled throughout Europe on excellent trains -- I've gone up one side of Great Britain and down the other and from Paris to Rome -- I can tell you that most Americans have no idea how pleasant and human it can be.

You sit in comfortable chairs with plenty of legroom. It's quiet. There's no turbulence or annoying announcements telling you to sit down, turn off all electronic devices or buckle up. You don't have to hold your breath once you touch down. You can get up and sit in another car for some food and beverages. You can relax or actually sleep.

I'm a big believer in train travel, mostly because it's civilized. In two weeks, my family and I are taking trains from our home to Union Station in Chicago, then to Union Station in Washington, DC. Nobody wanted to fly or drive and the kids were half price. We've booked coach class seating, although last time we went to Washington, we booked a family sleeper.

Obama's train plan is to give just enough money to state and regional planning authorities to see how much the real deal will cost. In California, for example, a Los Angeles to San Francisco high-speed train will cost about $40 billion. Regional hubs have been on the drawing board for the Midwest (Chicago-Milwaukee-Minneapolis-St. Louis-Cincinnati-Detroit), Texas, Florida and the Northeast for years. It's time we start building the tracks and regaining the edge we once had, a technology that has since been advanced by the Germans, Japanese, French and Chinese.

Where would you put these trains? In most cases, you wouldn't even need to create a right of way or purchase land. Just go down the median of the interstates. The government already owns the property and they could stop right at major population centers.

Trains make more sense than planes for distances under 400 miles. In most areas, by the time you get to the airport, through security and checked in, you've already wasted several hours -- time you could've spent reading, eating, working or just...traveling.

When my wife Kathleen and I visited Spain the summer before last, we didn't even think about renting a car. The major cities are hundreds of miles apart and there's no reason to drive. Spain now has a first-class high-speed system that has Madrid as a hub. The trains are whisper quiet and smooth as sangria.

The best reason to build a 21st century train network in this country is that it will generate a lot of employment for many years. People will use it and it can be upgraded over time.

I can picture myself now, snoozing on the Capitol Limited to Washington, waking up in the heart of the verdant Potomac Valley, easing into the nation's nerve center with the Capitol Dome popping up over the river. Yes, indeed, there's something about a train -- it's so civilized, once we have it we'll wonder how we lived so long without it.


Big Mike Glab said...

We have to get the American public to stop thinking of trains as smoke-belching, cow-catching, antiquities that'll be stopped by savages in the prairies. Remember, people as a rule are stupid and the American people are stupider than most.

Matthew Chapman said...

Rather than looking for "new" right of way to build railroads on, start with the existing rights of way which railroads have abandoned (but apparently reserve the right to build tracks on again if the need arises).

That's how the Metrolink light rail system was mostly built here in St. Louis. The path from the airport to downtown uses old Wabash railway ROW, and the path from the east side of the river out into the burbs uses the old Louisville and Nashville ROW.