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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Really Rapid Transit*

MagLev Bullet Train in China
Yeah.  They did.

That's 267 miles per hour.

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
October 10, 2010
as "Basic Train-ing a Joy"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
Written content only

Last year, I took a train ride to New York City. The trip was…well you might call it a transportational epiphany. Looking for an alternative to air travel, I discovered, or perhaps re-discovered a far more enjoyable way to travel.

Since then, I’ve taken a couple of shorter junkets, and joined the good people of Rockwood as they celebrated the possibility of a Amtrak stop in their small town. From there, you can be in Washington DC in about 3 hours, or roughly the same amount of time it takes to drive.

On Saturday, The History Channel ran a program on high-speed rail that captured my attention.

For an hour, images of lightning-fast trains flashed across the screen. I learned that Japan has a thousand miles of rail lines exclusively for their Bullet Trains. In Europe, France and Germany both have similar fast trains, and are looking at a MagLev, or magnetic levitation train, which would rocket across the countryside at speeds over 300 mph. Even China, a nation most westerners consider primitive, has high-speed rail lines, and is building more.

But despite their high speeds, the trains have a proven safety record. In all those countries that run these trains, there has never been a single fatality. And some have been running regular schedules since the ‘80s.

So, I’m wondering, why don’t we have them here?

Other than the Acela that runs between Washington DC, Boston and New York City, there aren’t any American high-speed rail lines anywhere.

It’s no revelation how bad air travel has become. Airports are crowded, aircraft are stuffed tight, and aircrews and passengers are rude to each other, and airlines are hostile to luggage. If a customer had the option of taking a high-speed train from, say, Pittsburgh to Chicago without the hassles of airport security, weather delays, over-worked aircrews, wait times in the terminals and on the taxiways, long, long walks from arrival gates to ground transportation, and waits for luggage (when it arrives at all), who wouldn’t consider it? Imagine riding on a 200-mph train in comfortable seats with legroom, Wi-Fi, space to work, outlets for your electronics, plus being able to use your cell phone while traveling. This will pose a serious marketing problem for the purveyors of the now-hostile skies.

Most modern airports are on the edge of cities, some out in the country. Trains, in comparison, go straight into the heart of the action, leaving you only blocks instead of miles from your ultimate destination.

Unfortunately, wide-spread high-speed rail in the U.S. would be incredibly expensive. In order to take full advantage of their capabilities, bullet trains would need their own set of tracks. A MagLev doesn’t even use tracks, so that particular infrastructure would have to be built from the ground up. To be efficient, these trains would require routes with limited stops. Can you imagine the firestorm in congress with every representative and senator pushing for train stops in their districts? Also, there would be those NIMBY folks who would not want these trains whizzing past their homes. And of course, the airline industry could not be happy at this threat to their rapid transportation monopoly. They too have friends in high places. The resulting court cases and injunctions alone would take decades to work through. Once construction started, it might take 10 years to construct enough of the railways to make them effective transportation alternatives.

And money.

Even with my built-in bias towards rail travel, I can’t see this thing coming in at much less than $2 or $3 trillion, even though the construction, operation, and upkeep of such a system would generate tens of thousands of permanent jobs. The advantages to both business and the environment might not be realized for decades.

And yet, we snicker at the French economy, and they have high-speed rail. We shake our heads at the Germans, and they have rapid trains. We roll our eyes at the Japanese, and they’ve run bullet trains daily for 30 years. Even seemingly-backwards China is jumping in with both feet.

The construction of the Interstate Highway system by the Eisenhower administration was a massive project, costing billions. Yet, we needed it, so we did it. We need a nationwide high speed rail network. But will we do it? Unquestionably, this will require an act of national will and political courage.

Unfortunately in contemporary America, both seem to be in very short supply.
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