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Why can't the U.S. run a railroad?

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Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

We've never shown serious interest in developing rapid, convenient passenger rail service matching France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan and China.

All of those industrialized places offer modern train systems racing across the countryside at speeds exceeding 180 mph in places.

Perhaps you heard last month that China opened the world's longest high-speed rail line. Trains cover a distance comparable from New York City to Key West, Fla. – roughly 1,200 miles – in eight hours.

By comparison, the “Pennsylvanian,” Amtrak's once-a-day train from Pittsburgh to New York City, covers one-third as many miles in about 10 hours, averaging travel below 40 mph.

The “Capitol Limited” takes nearly 8 hours for an even slower ride to Washington, D.C., but be prepared for a 4:50 a.m. departure.

A one-way, second-class seat on China's new train costs $139 for people to be whisked cross-country, Beijing to Guangzhou.

By comparison, a one-way, business-class seat on the “Pennsylvanian” costs $104 for the train trip that Megabus makes to NYC two hours faster at a fraction of the price.

China's project cost $640 billion in U.S. dollars, including money indirectly provided by consumers who buy its cheap imports. Construction, materials and equipment created about 100,000 jobs to combat unemployment.

By comparison, our recent “economic stimulus” cost more than $700 billion, financed partly by money borrowed from China.

While the bailout kept some people working, it extended unemployment benefits to others who could have been building infrastructure projects such as high-speed passenger rail lines to provide long-term benefits like the Interstate highway program achieved.

Politicians and transportation officials blew smoke about high-speed rail for decades while wasting millions of dollars on studies, including an ill-fated “maglev demonstration project” supposed to be built in Pittsburgh and spawn a major new industry.

Japan began operating its famous “bullet trains” in the 1960s, introducing new transportation technology to the world.

France inaugurated a high-speed rail train called the “TGV” between Paris and Lyon in September 1981.

Since then, lines have been extended throughout Europe, Japan and now China.

I still have my ticket for a memorable journey out of Paris on Sept. 21, 1993, during a 45-day tour of Europe. The engineer proudly announced when we hit 176 mph along a flat stretch on the original 260-mile-long, high-speed line southeast of Paris, albeit the train traveled from Lyon to the French Riviera at conventional speed.

A British woman (and her dog) sitting across from me in first-class provided much appreciated help with French language. She ordered my meal: chicken aspic, bleu cheese, baguette, filet mignon, wine, chocolates and cherries marinated in liqueur. Bon appetit!

To say that the scenery flew by is no exaggeration, so fast that nearby farms and houses were often a blur. The ride was as smooth as an air flight without turbulence but far more comfortable.

Unfortunately, we'll be no closer to passenger rail efficiency 20 years from now than we were 20 years ago when I took the dream ride in France.

The high-speed rail systems in Europe are saving energy and enabling nations to invest less in roads and airport expansions.

While our rail passenger service was once the world's best, Amtrak has devolved into a second-class citizen, sharing tracks where rail freight has priority.

The U.S. Department of Transportation and politicos shower highways, airports and urban transit with more than $80 billion a year.

They allocate a total of $1.4 billion to Amtrak to subsidize operating losses despite record ridership and make meager capital investments in equipment ready for the junkyard.

The U.S. can't run a railroad.

You're not surprised, are you?


Thought du jour. Say it isn't so, Joe.

Joe Grata is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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