Train in Vain: Epilogue on High-Speed Rail Series

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April 16, 2009 was the high-water mark for high-speed rail in the United States. The leader of the free world stepped up to the podium and delivered the pitch. It was for a system of high-speed trains that would give citizens an affordable, fast and comfortable intercity travel option.
President Obama’s speech hit all the right notes. It outlined the need for high-speed rail, pointed out examples of international success and expressed the shortcomings of America’s infrastructure. The press corps covering the event seemed genuinely inspired, laughing at the president’s jokes and engaging him actively. Chip in a few dollars a month to help support independent cleantech coverage that helps to accelerate the cleantech revolution! President Obama has motivated people to build high-speed rail. Unfortunately, those people are politicians and businessmen in other countries (such as in Great Britain, Brazil and China). In this country, a mere six months later, the momentum and optimism generated by that speech has largely faded due to resistance from the same interest groups that have gutted American rail over the years.Granted, it is not to say that the high-speed rail network in some form will not be built eventually. There is enough momentum to construct something. It might take 10 or 20 years but tracks will be laid. If it will be any good or not is an entirely different question. Americans seem more than willing to accept terrible or no public transportation. We just shrug our shoulders.
Look at the quality standard of U.S.-made vehicles to foreign competition. Compare American cars to German ones or a Berlin Omnibus to a Los Angeles Metro bus: No contest. Our high-speed rail network will most likely follow this pattern when compared to the German Intercity Express or any other world class system. All shortcuts will be taken and a cut-rate product will be given to the American traveler instead of a system that would be a world-beater.
Cities and states keep applying for high speed rail funding, but the budgets remain a fraction of what is needed to produce a world class system. Without the necessary amount of money needed to build quality high-speed rail in America, will planners settle and build the poor man’s bullet train? Will it be a stripped-down PT Cruiser of a train that no one will enjoy riding? Will the planners, engineers and politicians muster the will to demand the cash needed to offer the traveler a fantastic transport option?
Time will tell, but the smart money is on a second rate train for the American public. Conservatives who want to slash high-speed rail budgets with the intention to produce the worst train possible (if they cannot kill it completely) will be sure to throw an “I told you so” when people are disappointed in the train’s quality. Now is the crucial time to produce for high-speed rail but the outcome looks less than promising. The final word in this series goes to a legend:
All the times
when we were close/
I’ll remember
these things the most/
I see all my dreams come tumbling down/
I won’t be happy without you around

-Joe Strummer of the Clash
Song: Train in Vain
Album: London Calling, Track 19
[photo credit: Flickr]

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Derek Markham

Derek lives in southwestern New Mexico and digs bicycles, simple living, fungi, organic gardening, sustainable lifestyle design, bouldering, and permaculture. He loves fresh roasted chiles, peanut butter on everything, and buckets of coffee.

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