By Philip Bethge
President Barack Obama wants to upgrade America's transport system using high-speed trains, bringing a taste of what is a part of everyday life in Europe and Asia to the United States. But the car-obsessed nation is divided over the plans. Is the mammoth project doomed to failure?
US Vice-President Joseph Biden is America's most famous commuter. It has earned him the nickname "Amtrak Joe." Several times a week, Biden takes an Amtrak train from Wilmington, Delaware to the historic Union Station in Washington, DC. It has been claimed the Democrat now knows the first name of every ticket inspector on the line.
Biden must have been pleased when he unveiled the government's new high-speed rail plans at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia last month. The administration plans to spend $53 billion (€38 billion) on passenger trains and rail networks over the next six years. The lion's share of this has been earmarked for new high-speed connections. The aim is that 80 percent of Americans will have access to "bullet trains" by 2035.
Such gleaming high-tech marvels could race between San Francisco and Los Angeles at speeds of up to 350 kilometers per hour (220 miles per hour). The planners hope to cut the journey times between Washington and Boston to less than four hours. A T-shaped line in Texas would connect Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. The plan foresees raising hundreds of kilometers of this so-called "Texas T-Bone" off the ground so that longhorn cattle can pass underneath the rails.
"It's a smart investment in the quality of life for all Americans," says Rick Harnish of the Chicago-based Midwest High Speed Rail Association. Industry insiders like Ansgar Brockmeyer, of the passenger rail division of Germany's Siemens Mobility, are thrilled about this locomotive renaissance. "There's reason for optimism," he says.
America's Legendary Railroads
However, the country's conservative forces are determined to derail US President Barack Obama's technological vision. No fewer than three newly elected governors (from the states of Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio) have completely rejected Washington's planned cash injection for the country's railways.
In fact it's difficult to say whether America's long-neglected trains can ever make a comeback. Large parts of the network are in a desperate state, and most Americans have long-since switched to traveling by car or plane instead.
And yet the railroad enabled their forefathers to open up the Wild West. Train services were profitable in the US right up until the 1950s. Many lines were legendary, such as the Santa Fe Super Chief, which brought its passengers from Chicago to Los Angeles in luxury. Film stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart slumbered in the elegant sleeper cars, and dined in five-star style.
The California Zephyr is another classic service, with its route stretching for almost 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) from the Midwest to San Francisco. In better times, "Vista dome" cars gave passengers a 360-degree panoramic view of the Colorado River, Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada. An elite team of hostesses, dubbed the "Zephyrettes," served drinks and even offered to act as babysitters.
The Zephyr still runs to this day -- but the 51-hour journey makes this more of a treat for diehard railway fans. One such fan is James McCommons from Northern Michigan University. The academic spent a year crisscrossing the US by train before chronicling his experiences in a book. "It's embarrassing," he says. "We were the greatest railroad nation in the world, and now we don't even build a railroad car in this country ourselves."
American author James Kunstler complains that "Amtrak has become the laughing stock of the world." He jokes that the company was clearly "created on a Soviet-management model, with an extra overlay of Murphy's Law to ensure maximum entropy of service." Indeed, Amtrak trains currently take more than 11 hours to cover the 600 kilometers (375 miles) from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It hardly helps either that the train is called the "Coast Starlight."
A Wake-Up Call
The high-speed rail plans have therefore come as something of a wake-up call in these circumspect times. Many Americans are amazed to discover that President Obama appears to be serious about investing heavily in the railways. "I don't know what this fascination with trains is about," says Michael Sanera of the John Locke Foundation, a free-market think tank. He has only one explanation: "I think there is a lot of frustration primarily by men who maybe didn't get that train set when they were kids, and now they want to play around with trains."
Taking a closer look, it's easy to see how serious the situation has become. America is facing gridlock. According to a study by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission, the US will need nine new airports the size of the gigantic Denver International Airport and will have to double the number of miles of interstate highways if demand for transportation continues to grow at the current level in the coming decades. In 2009, commuters in the US spent 5 billion hours stuck in traffic jams. That's seven times as long as in 1982.
"Four decades from now, the United States will be home to 100 million additional people," warns US Transport Secretary Ray LaHood. "If we settle for roads, bridges and airports that already are overburdened and insufficient … our next generation will find America's arteries of commerce impassable." He considers high-speed trains essential.