Recently I spent a little while visiting politicians’ web sites. All of them mention energy, and they all have energy policies of some sort. The Republicans promise more drilling for oil. The democrats promise a commitment to renewable energies. Most of them promise things to take place long after they leave office. “20% renewable energy by 2020” one says. No matter what happens, he won’t be in office by then. What if someone else comes in with different ideas? Then of course, the bulk of his plan will never be put into practice.
Then there are the other things – research on the hydrogen economy, etc. I’m not impressed by any of these things. In politics as in anything else, a man who promises the moon but does not achieve what he actually can do is not worth much of anything. So here’s at least one thing a politician can do: reduce gasoline consumption by creating a meaningful train culture in the United States.
In other words, make an Amtrak that works. Here’s how to do it.
First of all, identify your market. Who are they and where are they? That’s easy. First of all, they are people who do not have cars. Where do they live? In cities with mass transport systems. New York is the most obvious example: a stunning 70% of New Yorkers do not have cars. Boston is the second-best market.
So here’s the plan: turn 50% of the New York-Boston car traffic into train traffic. In political rhetoric: “I want I-95 to look like a ghost town by the end of my first term in office.”
How do you do this? With good, old-fashioned American business determination fortified by government power. First of all, take over the tracks using eminent domain (Amtrak rents most of its track!), and set a commission to work on improving the track. Using the power of eminent domain, the track needs to be straightened (“this is for our national security.”). But while that rerouting is going on, keep working to dominate the transport market in this corridor: run trains every five minutes, lower prices repeatedly, hire non-union labor. Eliminate stops. Do you know how many stops there are on the Amtrak line between New York and Boston? Almost all of them can be eliminated, because the people who live in these towns have cars. Consequently, they are not likely to use Amtrak much anyway. I propose one stop in New Haven, because this links into the commuter rail going to New York, and one stop in Providence, which links to the commuter rail to Boston. And in between, plan on going two hundred miles an hour at least.
That’s one term’s worth of work, I think. The next term, you can concentrate on heading south, to Washington. You do the same thing, stopping (again to connect the commuter rails) in Trenton, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
After this, the top priority has to be the West Coast, which has the next largest concentration of people without cars. San Francisco, of course, has to be the focus. And the most important link would be San Francisco to Los Angeles. Here, by taking the Central Valley, it should be possible to shatter all kinds of land-speed records. Three hundred miles an hour should be possible.
From this point, it would be possible to extend the system into a real national rail: first from Washington down to Richmond, and then further. From San Francisco to Portland, and so forth.
Trains seem like a terribly 19th-century kind of solution; everyone seems to prefer some grand technological gesture. But those grand technological transformations are fundamentally uncertain, and are not really specifically governmental: if anyone can find a way to make a “hydrogen economy” work, it is likely to be a private company (Honda has begun commercial production of hydrogen cars already). But infrastructure is something the government can do: no private company is going to be able to run 200 mph tracks across fifteen states without serious government assistance anyway. And infrastructure has the ability to transform entire modes of living: making a car-free lifestyle possible in America would make a far greater difference than keeping cars and changing the source of their hydrocarbon.
A working Amtrak is an actual improvement to America’s energy situation. It will also have its economic benefits, making travel for foreign tourists and Americans without cars much easier. And someday, no doubt, probably in a time of even greater need than today, this work will be done. What we need is a real leader to start it now.