All Aboard

Most rail systems in the United States today are used for transporting freight, but this was not always the case. Passenger rail systems were a staple of American life until the 1950s when the Interstate Highway System and commercial air travel became dominant forms of transportation. Prior to this, a healthy network of inner city street trolleys and intercity railroads provided a convenient, affordable and consumer-driven option for travel. Despite the technological advancements of the automobile and jetliner, many attribute the sudden downfall of the rail lines to the Great American Streetcar Scandal of the 1940s. The scandal was a plan by General Motors to acquire, and subsequently demolish, the streetcar network. By transforming the rail system into inefficient, unpopular bus lines, they could make public transit an unsavory option and push the American people towards the automobile market. Their plan worked.

Around the same time, the first high-speed rail was being completed in Japan. Despite the rapidly growing highway system, Lyndon Johnson was quick to gain bi-partisan approval to fund high-speed rail projects in the 1960s. The High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965 created the Metroliner, serving New York and Washington DC and reached speeds of 125 mph. Since then, multiple administrations have sought to continue rail development but have had less tangible results, and today Amtrak remains the only passenger rail serving the United States.

The conversation was reignited with the Obama administration, which included funding for rail as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (commonly known as the Stimulus Package). Referencing the goals of previous transportation secretaries, the administration identified ten rail corridors as potential funding opportunities.


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ARRA made $8 billion in grant funding available to rail projects with the aim of reducing foreign oil dependency, creating a convenient transportation option, lowering congestion in current transportation systems and reducing carbon emissions. The Federal Railroad Administration received over $57 billion in grant requests from 34 states, and allocated funds to 31 states in 2010.

Despite having requested money, and having been granted federal funds, several states later rejected funds citing “financial conservatism.” Republican representatives in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida gave up their funds (which were reallocated to other rail projects) stating that private investment should fund these projects, rather than the government.

Their opinion on government funding is especially interesting when you consider the substantial federal funds that are accepted each year for the Highway Trust Fund. The HTF spends $160 billion ANNUALLY with approximately one fourth, $40 billion, coming from the federal government each year. Furthermore, looking back at the advent of the US highway system, the Federal Highway Act of 1921 provided matching funds in the amount of $75 million over a five-year period for the construction of highways. In 2006 dollars that is equal to about $425 billion, making the nearly 50,000-mile system “the largest public works project since the Pyramids.”

With only one segment of the high-speed rail line set to break ground this year (in California), proponents of the system must find ways to secure more private funding, assure ridership and reallocate public funds for this cause. While the benefits of rail seem clear, perhaps they are not being expressed loudly enough. A study by the International Union of Railways shows that high-speed rail generates almost five times less CO2 than automobiles and aircraft with the same capacity. Where is the marketing on this? Where is our carbon tax that would make this option virtually irresistible?

Beyond the environmental impacts, the economic development opportunities are also not being properly conveyed. Cost benefit analyses are overly focused on direct costs and have not adequately factored in the development of business relationships and market connectivity.

There may also be something to be said for transforming the overall public opinion towards rail travel. The Carbon Efficient City makes the point that “people will choose to do things that might otherwise seem inconvenient if they find delight in them.” In an era of immediacy and instant gratification, where travel is solely considered the means to an end, can we re-envision our vacation travel to include the means as a vibrant addition to the experience? Can we transform the great American love affair with the automobile to one with the high-speed rail?


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One thought on “All Aboard

  1. Pingback: Weekend Reading 3/15/13 | Sightline Daily

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