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Editorial: Cash at last for fast trains: Obama starts push for 21st-century rail system

(The following editorial appeared on the Hartford Courant website on March 23, 2009.)

HARTFORD, Conn. — Asked to describe the U.S. passenger rail system, the author and social critic James Howard Kunstler replied, "The Bulgarians would be ashamed of it."

Or pretty much anyone else. Over the past half-century, once-proud American passenger trains were scrapped or sidelined as the nation put its money and dreams into highways and airports.

Three Republican presidents tried to eliminate federal funding for Amtrak. Although studies by the Federal Railroad Administration and others have shown a single rail track could carry as many people as six to 12 lanes of highway, this country invariably opted to build the highways.

The Japanese and Western Europeans didn't. Countries such as France, Germany and Spain built highways, but also built high-speed rail connections between major cities. They understood that for intermediate trips of 300 or fewer miles, trains could get passengers downtown faster than planes, while reducing demand for highways and airports.

With U.S. highways gridlocked and airports crowded, and with energy use and pollution becoming major problems, advocates are pushing for similar service here. Thus it was encouraging to see President Barack Obama include $8 billion in the recent federal stimulus package for high-speed rail.

It works. After creating the electrified Acela, the closest thing this country has to a high-speed train, Amtrak has increased its share of the Washington-to-New York combined air and rail traffic from 50 percent in 2004 to 63 percent last year, USA Today recently reported.

The Acela reaches speeds of 130 mph. California is proposing a 220 mph train that could make the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco trip in 2 1/2 hours. If you're going downtown, it would be faster than flying. Advocates want to upgrade the Northeast Corridor, among other potential routes.

The $8 billion isn't going to pay for all of this, by a long shot, but it's a down payment on a much-improved rail passenger system. It would make a huge difference for a city such as Hartford, which could take great advantage of its proximity to Boston and New York with a one-hour, one-seat train trip. Imagine.

Monday, March 23, 2009

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