In 2005, President Bush proposed zeroing out all federal support for passenger rail, and Amtrak, which has had a rocky history since its founding in 1971, contemplated bankruptcy. How things change. Just a few years later, rising gas prices have pushed ridership to record levels, and Congress passed a bill earlier this month that doubles Amtrak’s annual subsidy and authorizes $13 billion in funding over 5 years.
Interest in rails, streetcars and buses has never been higher–400 new public transit projects have been proposed in large and small regions from Massachusetts to Hawaii, according to the nonprofit Reconnecting America. Amtrak route revivals and extensions, including the Sunset Limited from New Orleans east to Jacksonville, Florida, are being studied. Even in car-loving California, voters will be asked November 4 to approve a $10 billion down payment on a new 800-mile high-speed rail network, billed as the most ambitious public works project nationwide since the gold spike was driven on the end of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. A trip from San Francisco to LA would cost about $55 and take two and a half hours on trains reaching 220 miles an hour. (One obstacle to voter approval–if California’s constant budget problems and the market meltdown isn’t enough–is a September commuter rail accident in LA that left 25 dead.)
Of course, bullet trains are old news in Europe and Japan. Even China, which shares our vast and varied terrain, and which has embraced cars with a vengeance in recent years, has gotten on board with high speed trains too. China is now the world’s largest urban transit market, and recently awarded multibillion contracts to companies including Quebec’s Bombardier to build lightweight intercity trains with top speeds of 150 mph.
Back home, a combination of energy costs, pollution concerns, and traffic woes may finally push the United States to get on board with expanded rail lines, whether high-speed or regular speed. For every passenger-kilometer shifted from road to rail, carbon emissions are cut 70%. That’s a powerful savings no matter the cost.