Friday, January 9, 2009

American Rail

Shortly after my 21st birthday I purchased an Amtrak ticket to Denver, packed up my bags, and headed off to meet a girl (now my wife). It was all very romantic, save for the hangover I carried along with me that early July morning. It was also very comfortable. I was in a nearly empty car, and there was lots of room to stretch out. I could sleep easily, and reading didn't make me sick to my stomach as it does in the back of a car. It was far, far more cozy than flying.

Besides, it was a better way to travel--by which I mean to actually experience the world around you whilst transporting yourself from one location to the next. Unless you find a way to drive the backroads of this country, you're confined to the Freeways--which are fast, barren alternatives. We don't really travel so much as transport on a Freeway. Planes are worse, but the only really fast way to cover such vast distances.

The train was a good choice for me. I didn't own a car and didn't have much money, certainly not enough to spend on a plane ticket. And besides, it sounded fun.

It was an eye-opener for a number of reasons. First, I saw a side of New Mexico I'd never seen before--the shanty-towns and dilapidation of that State were very apparent from the tracks. Second, I realized how limited the rail-network really was. In southern Colorado we disembarked and boarded a bus for Denver. The bus was much, much less comfortable, and far slower, too. Essentially, I enjoyed every moment of the trip up to the point I boarded that bus. From that point on, and to this day, I lamented the inadequacy of our country's rails.

I'll say this, if I could take the train to Phoenix instead of drive, I would. If I had the option to travel by light-rail across country instead of fly, I would. Now it takes too long, with too much out-of-route involved. It's several days from the West Coast to the East by train, partly because the tracks are not direct (we simply don't have enough rail) and partly because the trains are not as fast as we know they could be. Europe sports trains that speed across the country at 120 miles per hour--some upwards of 200 mph. This is far faster than your typical Amtrak train.

So when I stumbled across Yglesias today, basically asking the obvious question (why is there no plan to expand rail in the Obama stimulus), I had to remark on it. First of all, here is Yglesias on the potentiality of a rail stimulus:
Like Special Agent Mulder, I want to believe in this. In particular, I do believe that it would be a good idea to make these kind of investments. But I also know that many people hear about the idea of spending $40 billion in California and $32 billion in the Northeast and maybe comparable amounts to build HSR systems in Florida and the rust belt and they start to blanche. So now that all of a sudden there’s broad political consensus in favor of adding a few hundred billion dollars to the deficit, I really want to put my hand up and say “hey! look over here! some productive infrastructure investments we should make!”
I want to believe, too. Read the rest of Yglesias's post, because he's absolutely right about this. Rail could do so much for this country--it's green, it's a long-term investment in infrastructure that basically is exactly the kind of thing Government should be involved in, and in creates American jobs, and lots of them.

There is huge potential not only for economic stimulus, but for a revolution in tranpsortation that may not only be good for America, but also necessary as gas prices will inevitably rise again in the near future. Also, as I've said before, I think mass-transit can actually be a positive force for community building. It's just one more way to be close to our neighbors--forced into proximity, as it were, in a world that does its best to keep us detached.