One of the chief facts that bothered me about the recent fatal train derailment in Philadelphia of an Amtrak train was the fact that the train derailed when going at the pitifully slow speed of slightly more than 100 mph. It is a well-established fact that the Japanese and Europeans are able to develop trains that can go near, if not in excess, of 300 mph, and the fastest trains we have in this country cannot go a third of that speed without putting people at risk of death and injury. This is unacceptable. Yet Amtrak itself cannot be trusted with the budget it would take to improve the rail infrastructure of our country to the level it would take for our trains to be competitive with Europe and Japan. Even state and local jurisdictions cannot be trusted with the kind of money that it take to build high-speed rail, for it costs too much and cannot pay without massive continual subsidies from taxpayers, which is also unacceptable.
If we are to commit to a passenger rail system at all, we need to get our act together. We should have no more whining about how the United States is a big country and spaced far apart and that makes it hard to build rail. Garbage. Our country was put together originally because of canals, rivers, and lots of railroads, long before we had a highway system of any kind. Most of what I see in terms of appeals for rail are bound to fail, though, because rail is pitted against automobile travel. Even with the inconvenience of traffic, rail is a loser if its speeds are to be compared with traveling by car, simply on the grounds that driving a car gives you the freedom to drive where you wish, and a rail line forces you to travel along a particular pre-determined path with pre-determined stops. Freedom matters a great deal to many of us (myself included), and train simply cannot compete with the freedom of an automobile. However, if we are able to build a rail system fast enough so that rail can compete with planes, then rail stations offer considerable advantages to traveling by plane, including the hassles of long layovers, cramped conditions, and sexual harassment from TSA agents. “Don’t want deep vein thrombosis or to be groped? Ride the train!” That is a winning argument for rail, since rail offers a considerably better view than a plane, and a lot more space, and a lot less hassle. What needs to happen is more speed, so that riding a train can at least begin to compete with flying in a plane, at which point it will offer a legitimate alternative for time-conscious people who are willing to ride the rails.
How can riding the rails be made to pay? Any legitimate solution to our infrastructure problem with the rails needs to pay for itself. A sustainable model for public transportation throughout the United States means a solution that does not depend on taxation and that cannot run annual and predictable deficits. It has to pay its own way. That means that it has to have enough riders to be able to repay any construction bonds in building a new infrastructure as well as providing for maintenance of the lines and payment of the employees involved in staffing Amtrak or its replacement. Given the fact that many municipalities, even fairly large cities, lack an effective public transportation system, there will have to be a way of connecting any national rail system to a functioning local system. This may include the development of “ferry” cars that take automobiles of riders along for the ride (for an additional premium, of course) so that they can drive at their destination, or it requires the integration of rental cars or reliable transportation (like Uber) with the high-speed rail system to prevent people from being stranded at their destination and unable to move around town in a timely fashion.
Additionally, in order for this to work, the rail system will need to be robust in all weather conditions. Of particular problem is the issue of snow and blizzards around the paths of the high speed rail system. A partial solution would be to focus initial development in areas where the weather is warm enough to allow for easy transportation, but eventually it will be necessary to create an engineering solution for the problem of snow-covered tracks. As it is prohibitively expensive to build tunnels for the lengths necessary (hundreds and thousands, if not tens of thousands of miles of train tracks), a worthwhile solution might be to find some way of building lightweight and transparent barriers around the tracks that allow for vision and that keep the tracks warm through all weather. Doing so would make high-speed rail very competitive with existing transportation solutions, especially during blizzards. A robust national rail transportation system would also involve some sort of links between local, regional, and national train networks. Rather than a hub-and-spoke system, a system where even smaller nodes have connections with multiple neighbors may allow both for better sightseeing but also more efficient routing, with small costs in there being more stops.
One way of helping make the system pay would be to allow for high-speed freight transfer, especially if it can compete with the speed of flying as well as the low cost of tractor trailers. Given the large amount of time-sensitive travel that can take place on an all-weather train system, for goods as well as people, being able to safely and economically transfer goods via such routes, especially connected to robust local and regional transportation networks, would allow for the replacement of many long tractor travel routes and existing rail links (which may be possible to upgrade, at least in part), and allow for a shift in transportation to take place from our interstate system to a rail system, and greatly limit the amount of interference between logistics and personal travel as is often the case on contemporary roadways, moving that sharing of transportation to better-managed rail systems that are robust enough for both passengers as well as freight. Additionally, the expenses paid by freight for high-speed rail at speeds competitive with planes would make such transportation cheaper for passengers, and therefore more competitive in price.
Considering that no government agency in our contemporary society can be trusted with such a massive amount of funding, it is clear that for any feasible solution to take place that is an efficient and judicious use of taxpayer money, good stewardship would require that there be both a coherent overall plan for such an infrastructure improvement as well as a sharing of resources among regional and local administrations. Careful stewardship and accountability are vital if such a project is to serve its intended purpose and not merely to increase graft and corruption on a national, regional, and local scale. There are a few essential questions that need to be asked: Is it worthwhile to upgrade our clearly subpar rail service? Is there a way for rail to stop competing against cars and start competing against planes, where it would have a chance of winning a larger share of long-distance travel? Is there a way for rail travel to be all-weather and reliable enough for contemporary travelers? Is there a way to integrate local, regional, and national nodes so that rail travel can be generally accessible as part of a comprehensive travel solution for all or the vast majority of the continental United States? Is there a way this can be done given our fiscal constraints, and in a way that does not involve a lot of wasted taxpayer money on corrupt bureaucracies? Can a way be found to make this solution pay for itself through enough passengers and freight so that continual taxpayer subsidies are not required nor requested? Perhaps this is my least modest proposal yet .
 See, for example: