It’s Time to Invest in the United States Rail System

The Amtrak Silver Star line runs from New York City to Miami and takes 31 hours - long enough to fly back and forth between the two cities five times.The Amtrak Silver Star line runs from New York City to Miami and takes 31 hours – long enough to fly back and forth between the two cities five times. (Photo: Patrick Rasenberg/Flickr)

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It’s time to make infrastructure sexy again, and we can start by fixing the United States rail systems.

Believe it or not, there was a time in the US when riding a train was luxurious. There were classy dining cars, moonlit rides across the countryside and you could even get lucky in a sleeping car.

Those days are long gone.

Today, despite the fact that Amtrak ridership has increased by 50 percent in the last 15 years and continues to increase along the Northeast Corridor, train travel is anything but sexy.

That’s because our nation’s rail systems are relics of another time.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.

As of 2012, the average age of an Amtrak rail car was 28 years old. And the tracks those rail cars travel on are straight out of the 1800s.

But US trains aren’t just really old; they’re really slow, too.

Take Amtrak’s Silver Star line for example.

The Silver Star runs from New York City to Miami and the whole trip takes a staggering 31 hours.

To put that in perspective, in that same amount of time, you could fly from New York City to Miami and back 5 times. You could make a couple round-trips from New York to London too.

Meanwhile, the Acela train, which was supposed to be the United States’ answer to high-speed rail, travels at an average speed of just 68 miles per hour between Boston and Washington. That doesn’t sound like high-speed to me.

In comparison, a train traveling a comparable route between Madrid and Barcelona, Spain, travels at over 150 miles per hour.

Japan has had high-speed “bullet trains” in place for years which run on-time nearly 100 percent of the time and criss-cross that country at speeds up to 300 miles per hour – in fact, one of their passenger trains just broke the world speed record for a train – at 366 miles per hour, loaded with passengers!

The French TGV and German ICE high-speed trains travel at similar speeds too.

The fact is that rail travel in the US – the richest country in the world – lags behind many developed and developing nations across the globe.

So, why do Amtrak and the rest of the United States rail systems fall flat compared to those across the globe?

Well, it’s simple: money.

This year alone, China is spending $128 billion on rail projects, while countries across Europe are making huge investments in their rail systems.

Unfortunately, Republicans in Washington don’t like to spend money on Amtrak and other rail systems because they don’t think the government should be running them in the first place. Instead, they want them privatized so for-profit corporations can run them and then take some of those profits to kick back to the Republican legislators as campaign donations.

In fact, Republicans are so opposed to the government funding rail in the US that many Republicans gave back federal dollars that were given to their states to build high-speed rail systems.

Back in 2009, President Obama gave over $8 billion to the states to pursue high-speed rail projects.

But Republican governors in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio returned that money, deciding that playing politics was more important than updating US infrastructure while giving a huge boost to local economies.

Meanwhile, much like the Public Broadcasting System and the US Postal Service – other government-backed programs that Republicans love to hate – Amtrak has faced repeated funding cuts.

Last month, the House of Representatives reached a deal to fund Amtrak for the next four years at a paltry rate of just $1.4 billion per year. Basically, lawmakers forked over just enough to keep Amtrak running in its current less-than-desirable state.

But that’s pretty good considering that Republican presidents and presidential candidates from Reagan to Romney have threatened to give Amtrak the axe altogether.

It’s time for Republicans to wake up and realize what much of the world already knows: rail is one of the most efficient forms of mass transportation.

That’s something that freight train company CSX brilliantly pointed out in a recent ad.

Not only is rail an environmentally friendly form of transportation, it also helps to provide a boost to local economies and businesses.

Plus, high-speed rail projects across the US could create thousands of new, well-paying jobs.

Ever since Reagan came to Washington, we’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot by not funding public infrastructure projects. It’s time for that to change.

With more Americans riding rail than ever before, we need to update our national rail infrastructure, make major updates in high density corridors like the Northeast Corridor and make real high-speed rail a reality across the US.

Then riding a train in the US will be sexy again.