Wouldn’t it be lovely to see the return of a long-lost railroading experience actually come true? That question, that tantalizes only a minority of readers, largely depends upon whether you ever had a lovely time on a train. And the Amtrak name in the title doesn’t help.
But it was lovely and could be again
If you live almost anywhere outside of America, you will have had that experience. Much of Europe prefers to take a train rather than fly. The truly great long-distance trains are mostly gone in our country. Now, pretty much the only expansively scenic route left is the 35-hour journey from Seattle to Los Angeles. And it’s damned expensive compared to catching a flight that takes less than 10% of the time. Compare a hundred bucks and sitting-up for a day and a half to $25 in three and a half hours. So, there’s reasons rail is pretty much over in America. Quirky service, questionable track conditions and (let’s face it) just too much time lost. Oh yeah, and cost. It ain’t cheap.
So tell me again how it could be great?
High-speed rail, it’s obvious. City-center to city-center, Chicago to New York City in under four hours with a well-served, freshly cooked meal in an honest-to-god dining car over linen tablecloths and ‘railroad’ nickel-silver table settings. A ride so smooth your wine doesn’t even make a ripple in the glass. Get on at Union Station in downtown Chicago and arrive refreshed and ready-to-go in New York’s Grand Central Station. No cabs fighting traffic to O’Hare or JFK, no overburdened security checks where you basically unpack and pack again, running to not miss a flight (oh, that’s in Terminal Two?) while you struggle to re-buckle your belt. Just the luxury of leaving-from and arriving-at your destination, unruffled, well fed and relaxed.
We tried that, it was called Acela and it was (and is) a flop
Oh c’mon guys, we can do better than that. Acela began too early, cost too much, arrived too late and missed almost all its goals. Like a committee designing a horse and getting a camel, it set out to be a failure. (Wikipedia) Amtrak's flagship high speed service operates in the Northeastern United States between Washington, D.C. and Boston via 16 intermediate stops, including Providence, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.
Whoa. Sixteen stops? That’s a commuter train, not proper high-speed rail.
The route contains segments of high-speed rail and Acela trains are the fastest trainsets in the Americas.
Fastest? That’s 7 ½ hours for a 450 mile route. I expect 800 miles between Chicago and NYC in half the time and with no stops instead of sixteen.
Acela attains 150 mph on 33.9 mi of the route.
Segments of high-speed rail. Uh huh, so Acela is actually high-speed for 7% of the time and claims to be fastest in North America.
Wow. Now I understand how Acela was in planning since the 1980s and they finally had an inaugural launch in 2000. So it’s been in operation ten years, doesn’t really reach any of the definitions of actual high-speed rail and cost $1.2 billion. Just in contrast, China built the world’s longest and most-used high-speed rail system in three years and their system now (after 15 years) covers 22,000 miles. Incidentally, the spread of high-speed rail forced domestic airlines in China to slash airfare and cancel regional flights. That would be a boon for America, because it will come slowly at a time when airlines are already consolidating. As HSR evolves across an ever-larger portion of America, airlines will fall back to their best-use capabilities as long-distance and over-ocean carriers.
Enough of what’s wrong…what’s your magic pitch?
No magic in it, just a bit of common sense. HSR is not compatible with existing track systems, so we need to stop beating that horse. Grade-crossings will always be a problem, so we have to either avoid or get above the road system. No school-bus wrecks at 220mph please. However, there does exist a no-grade-crossing system within the American highway system and we call it the interstate.
The median of the interstate highway system is the answer
Eisenhower built it for us (with our money) when he was president and it has the unique function of connecting our major cities downtown to downtown. HSR is not going to come to America like Eisenhower’s highway system because the cost is too great and the need (at this time) too little. But that’s already changing, as airports are running short of terminal space, taxiway pollution is at an all-time high and the industry’s relentless race-to-the-bottom has most carriers gasping for economic breath. We need a starter-project, a better way that proves out economically and gives us a template for future investment. High-speed-rail is appropriate and Chicago-NYC an ideal test route. For one thing, it has a very high commuter base. Over 4 million passengers fly back and forth from Chicago to NYC every year. It also has a reasonable and quite direct interstate connection.
How might that work?
Access to and from both Grand Central in New York City and Union Station in Chicago by the current in-place rail system until they first cross a connected interstate and then the fun begins. The States own the interstates that cross their territory, so a fair financial arrangement would have to be made with each, from Illinois to New York. Shouldn’t raise too much of a problem if the overall operator is Amtrak. If Amtrak is the operator, future routes might even be auctioned to third parties, perhaps even the airlines. They become transport companies instead of airlines. United might operate Denver-LA and American Denver-Chicago. Who knows at this point, but finding the revenue to build, operate and maintain shouldn’t be difficult. If someone like the Secretary of Transportation was running out front, cutting red tape, the whole project might well be done within two years. Eisenhower’s interstate system covered 48,440 miles, took 35 years and cost $550 billion in today’s dollars. Compare that with the relative ease and modern technology required to run high-speed rail down the median of the various interstates. Probably elevated to avoid all the weather related problems of snowstorms and auto-truck accidents that might affect the median.
But what fun and what an experiment
We once were—and perhaps still are—a nation of experiments.