Medium Speed Rail

It’s not nearly as interesting as more dramatic passenger rail initiatives, but this Virginia plan to spend $13 million upgrading the passenger rail connection between Washington, DC and Richmond is a great example of harvesting the low-hanging fruit. That’s a low, low price tag for transportation infrastructure, because what needs to be done is quite simple — the money will go to “build a third train track on a three-mile stretch in Spotsylvania County to allow Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express passenger trains to avoid being stuck behind slow-moving freight trains.” That will speed up passenger service and (arguably more importantly) make it more reliable. Ryan Avent comments:

It’s worth pointing out how big an interest the state has in improving these rail connections. The economy in Northern Virginia is lightyears ahead of anything anywhere else in the state. Improving connections between other metropolitan areas and the Washington juggernaut will only increase the market potential of those other areas.

I think it’s also a great example of network effects in action. If all passenger rail in the United States was as bad as the current DC-Richmond link, then the value of this upgrade might be pretty low. But of course that’s not the case. We have a pretty good set of rail links between DC and Boston. So if the Richmond-DC corridor can be upgraded from “bad” to “mediocre” then suddenly passenger rail becomes an attractive method of getting between Richmond and Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York along with DC. Building high-quality backbone lines like the Acela corridor is, of course, expensive. But one of the benefits of doing so is that along with the direct benefits flowing from those links, you open up a whole range of relatively cheap additional undertakings that wouldn’t otherwise make much sense.