How can we not be talking about trains? In November, California voters will decide on a $9.9 billion bond to kick-start the nation’s first high-speed rail project. What a nutty idea: Invest in a passenger rail system worthy of an industrialized country. I wonder if Americans will go for it.

In the not-so-distant past, questioning the absence of high-speed, or at least mildly efficient, passenger rail in the US was mostly a matter of nationalist-brand jealousy: The Japanese, Koreans and Europeans have fast, sleek trains, and countries like China and India are investing heavily in this technology. Why not us? The old guard’s old math said that railway only competes with air travel when distances are less than 500 miles and travel time less than 3 hours. Because the US is a big place, travelers here often have to cover more than 500 miles. And while highway congestion irritates drivers in Seattle and Atlanta as much as in Paris and Osaka, cheap gas in the US meant driving was more palatable and affordable.

Kiss those days goodbye. Gas prices and airfares are killing us, as are worries about greenhouse gas emissions and continued dependence on oil purchased from countries not named Norway. At the same time, Americans are frustrated with the government-owned National Railroad Passenger Corporation, a.k.a. Amtrak. If it’s not delays, it’s bailouts, and if it’s not bailouts, it’s confusion as to why countries like England and Japan have successfully privatized railway, while we in the US have not. Americans want and need a better railway system, and Amtrak’s fairly quick but not exactly cutting-edge Acela is not going to cut it. (New Yorkers might hop on Acela for the occasional trip to D.C, and people love the light rail here in Portland, Ore., but America on the whole remains a nation of cars.) Meanwhile, websites such as High Speed Rail News read like a sci-fi newsletter. Yet it covers developments underway right now: magnetically levitating trains in Asia, new high-speed routes in Scandinavia, expanded service in Japan and Germany, and even a bullet train project in Argentina.

States and citizen coalitions are taking matters into their own hands. Once ignored regional proposals for more sophisticated railway systems are now seeing a surge of interest, most prominent of which is the California High-Speed Rail that would run from Sacramento to San Diego (connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles in a mere 2.5 hours), and which recently earned the support of the Governator. Other, admittedly smaller, initiatives are bubbling up as well, in Florida and the Southeast, as well as in the Midwest and Texas. But it’s not all about high speeds. Local governments and grassroots groups want improved service on existing lines, better light rail in urban areas, more R&D of next-gen technologies such as Personal Rapid Transit, and overall infrastructure investments that go beyond fortifying bridges in Minneapolis. Thomas Friedman put it well in a column a few months ago: “If all Americans could compare Berlin’s luxurious central train station today with the grimy, decrepit Penn Station in New York City, they would swear we were the ones who lost World War II.”

The encouraging news is that we have the technical, and even political, capability to make efficient rail a reality. The US is an industry leader, at least when it comes to freight and manufacturing. True, the really-fast stuff is built elsewhere, but GE, for example, builds fuel-efficient locomotives for rail systems across the globe. As for the more delicate issue of expropriating land for new tracks, proponents of railway investment point to Eisenhower’s success with the Interstate Highway System. We needed it then, for automobiles and, so we thought, to move troops and weapons in the event of war with the Soviet Union. Now we are at war with ourselves, or more specifically with our car- and oil-addicted selves, not to mention the looming battle against global warming. How will we wage that war, and to what degree will trains be part of our strategy?

AuthorDavid Wolman