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Amtrak, the nations only long-distance rail provider, is in the planning stages of a $151 billion high speed rail (HSR) corridor connecting Washington D.C. to Boston.

Amtrak plans a 457 mile corridor connecting the major northeastern metropolitan areas: Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.  This HSR network would supplement the existing regional rail systems offered by Amtrak and dramatically improve inter-city access by cutting the travel time on the fastest trains by over half.  Currently, Amtrak offers trains between Philadelphia and New York coming in at just over an hour.  By the end of the plan, a whole 30 years in the future, this time would be cut almost in half.  Amtrak says trains could make the trip in as little as 37 minutes!

Great right?  Well, I am certainly a fan of HSR as much as any form of public transit. Having spent last fall studying and traveling in Europe I know firsthand how successful HSR networks can be.  With a country as large as the United States HSR rail connecting the major metropolitan areas of the country’s coats could greatly increase intercity travel and commerce without the heavy environmental burden of our heavy reliance on air travel.  But will Amtrak’s plan bring this success to the United States?

As much as I support HSR I am skeptical of Amtrak’s ability to deliver.  Amtrak is a government-owned corporation operating a complete monopoly of the national rail network.  As it stands, prices are high, demand is low, and Amtrak is living by the scraps Congress slides it under the table.  Amtrak does project that by following this plan it could be operating a budget surplus by 2040.  Can we believe this?  Is 30 years later even acceptable?

If I am not mistaken, China built its national HSR network from the ground up in just about a decade.  With a large portion of the developed world already invested in HSR and even more boasting robust traditional rail networks the United States cannot afford to accept mediocrity.

For sure HSR demands enormous upfront costs and uncertain paybacks that limit the ability of private enterprises to take on the risk associated with rail network development.  However, there are strategies that the government can take to incentivize private companies to enter the passenger rail business by limiting risk or providing low-cost financing and loan guarantees.  Some of these might even generate revenue for the government.  Either way, introducing competition to the rail network can bring innovative new solutions to the ballooning struggles of our national transit network.

Simply paying private companies to build our rail network is not enough and is probably a recipe for disaster.  However, if we want to wean ourselves from oil and provide a faster, lower cost, and more sustainable mode of long-distance travel we need to invest in HSR.  It won’t be easy and it will take time, but leveraging the power of our government today could provide the economic stimulus we need, directly address our growing environmental problems, and increase mobility in our most populated urban centers.

Read more about Amtrak’s Plans: