If the Boston-to-Washington megalopolis were its own country it would have over five times the population of Sweden and a population density higher than any European country. In other words, nobody woud say it was an area unsuited to intercity passenger rail. Which is no doubt why Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor features by far the best and most useful service in the system. But by international standards, the Acela is unimpressive so it’s good to see Amtrak coming up with a plan that can do better:
Amtrak is unveiling a $117 billion, 30-year vision for high-speed rail on the East Coast that would drastically reduce travel times along the congested corridor. At a news conference at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station on Tuesday, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman said the proposal is at the visionary stage, and there’s no funding plan in place. It aims for high-speed rail by 2040.
Boardman says the Next-Gen High Speed Rail line would reduce the travel time between Washington, D.C., and New York City from 162 minutes to 96 minutes. The travel time between New York and Boston would go from 215 minutes to 84 minutes.
Obviously, that’s a ton of money. But it also highlights the central problem with our current approach to rail. The Obama administration’s high-speed rail initiative is not only pretty stingy, it’s also spread incredibly thin because that’s what you get when you need to frame initiatives that can be approved by a congress based on representing distinct geographical areas. Any kind of national legislation that would raise $117 billion for northeast rail service would need to also spend a ton of money on rail service elsewhere in the country where the case for massive investment is much weaker. We’re essentially destined to be perennially under-investing in the northeast corridor and a handful of promising city pairs (Tampa-Orlando, Portland-Seattle) scattered around the country while sporadically over-investing elsewhere.
Presumably the advantage of some kind of privatization of transportation infrastructure is that it would allocate investment capital more efficiently. But the world being what it is, in the real world we’d be much more likely to get a giant boondoggle of one sort or another. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the 111th Congress it’s not to expect anything to be done in a reasonable way.