It Takes a Train to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

Is there a train in your future?

Bob Dylan didn’t have American rail service in mind when he wrote “It Takes a Train to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” but he could have. When Amtrak touts the Acela Express as “high speed rail,” one can but laugh. Acela trains could go as fast as 165 mph, but given the deplorable state of the tracks upon which it travels, a 457 mile Boston to Washington, DC trip will take over 6.5 hours and average just 68 mph; in other words, you could drive it faster (and certainly cheaper). High-speed rail is the three-hour 520-mile train ride I took from Geneva to Paris a few years ago, which really does go 165 mph.

As for crying, anyone who has sat dead in the tracks in the New Jersey marshes waiting for an incoming, slow-moving train to pass will be moved to tears, to say nothing of Amtrak’s back-into-the-station and wait 40 minutes maneuver in Springfield, Massachusetts. But if you really want to cry, lament the long-parted ‘leisurely’ family drive. If you’re going anywhere on the East Coast from Portland, Maine to Miami, Florida, your scenery will be that of metal walls blowing past you at 75 mph—the ubiquitous trucks hell-bent on rushing Chinese-made goods to a Walmart near you.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we could move people and goods faster and more cheaply? As it turns out, we can: by train. I do not mean an improved Acela or longer freight trains. And I don’t even mean by bankrupting the treasury. As it turns out, it’s probably much cheaper to scrap what we have, convert those lines into bicycle paths, and build something resembling the pneumatic tubs that used to pass messages, receipts, and change through department stores. We don’t need to wait for a futuristic Buck Rogers scenario to unfold—the technology is here; all we have to do is build it.

The model is called hyperloop, a vacuum tube through which trains suspended in a friction-free magnetic field can knife their way down concrete above-ground concrete troughs at speeds faster than those of jet planes. There’s already a plan for a Washington-to-Baltimore (40 miles) “Northeast Maglev” that will travel at over 300 mph and could become the lynchpin for the entire Northeast. The cost? Around $10 billion, which isn’t chump change, but is cheaper than Amtrak’s estimate of $151 billion to “improve” existing lines. Imagine next a line that could whisk you from Boston to the West Coast at over 700 mph. You could catch a croissant at South Station and have a second breakfast in Oregon. You’d have no need to suffer through the indignities of an airport, pay fuel surtaxes, and then shell out a king’s ransom to be transported from a set of concrete strips in the middle of nowhere into the city core. How cool is that?  

Can it work? It already does. All we have to do is find the cash. How about slashing military spending by 20%? Or not. Heck, you could sell this as part of a Department of Defense plan. Sound far-fetched? How do you think we built the interstate highway system? The 1956 bill authorizing it was known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. That’s right, it was justified as necessary in the case of a national emergency—something we tend to forget when we’re annoyed by a military convoy clogging up lanes on the interstate.

I say let’s do this thing. Sell it as a defense measure, a jobs bill, an energy-savings maneuver, a way to make American business more competitive—anything. Get ‘er built.

No comments: