Once Upon a Time in America . . .
Here’s a little known fact: Between 1935 and 1955, the ten fastest passenger trains in the world were all in the U.S. Trains like the famous 20th Century Limited ran at high speeds; they ran on time; they provided comfortable even luxurious accommodations; and their dining cars provided excellent meals served on real china set on crisp white tablecloths.
What the hell happened?
Roads and airplanes … that’s what happened. In the mid-1950s, President Eisenhower conceived the Interstate Highway system and Congress cheerfully went along. The original cost estimate was $27 billion; the actual cost when it was finished 30 years later, was $200 billion.
While all that was going on, state and local governments coughed up many more billions to buy land and build new airports. At the same time, the feds were also subsidizing the airlines by parceling out lucrative airmail contracts.
Meanwhile, all our railroads got was ripped off, albeit quite legally. The French and the Japanese studied their technology, took it back to their countries, improved it, and the next thing anyone knew, they were running high-speed trains that reached speeds of right around 200 miles per hour. And believe it or not, that was 60 years ago.
While billions were going into highways and aviation, we had a chance to turn it around when Amtrak was created in 1970, but Congress blew it by penny-pinching year after year when it came to Amtrak’s subsidy.
Of course, Amtrak hasn’t helped its own cause. In an effort to appease Congress, Amtrak keeps shaving its funding request to the bare minimum, only to have Congress demonstrate their “fiscal responsibility” by lopping another 10 or 15 percent off of that. Just once I’d like to see Amtrak ask for $15 or $20 billion and fight for it. They can certainly make a case for that … and more. Major infrastructure work has to be done on the Northeast Corridor and God knows they need new equipment throughout the entire system.
I think about all this a lot . . . especially when I hear some blowhard politician bragging about how this is the greatest country in the history of the universe. Yeah? Well, maybe in some areas, but when it comes to passenger rail, two dozen countries around the world are flat out kicking our ass. And that’s embarrassing.