I recently visited a friend from Europe who was staying in New York. As we chatted on our way down the stairway to a dank Midtown subway platform, I commented that I had several years before made a brief stop at the main railway station in Munich, Germany. My impression had been that the train station — huge, clean and modern — was as incredible as the locomotive that had brought me there.
“That’s how all train stations are in Europe,” he replied with a chuckle.
Europe’s rail network is much like the Munich train station. Comfortable, affordable 250-mph trains zip across the continent. Magnetic levitation trains are being developed – and in China, South Korea and Japan they are already in place.
Yet, despite servicing over 30 million Amtrak passengers each year, America’s rail system is embarrassingly slow and underdeveloped. Funding for Amtrak is consistently being cut. Only one high-speed rail corridor exists, and it’s way behind what’s available elsewhere. Statistics indicate that rail passengers are twice as safe in Europe as they are in the U.S. — and are three times as safe in Australia.
It’s no surprise that our system is so unsafe and so slow when you look how much (little) we spend on it.
The last available figures (for 2011) indicate that the U.S. spent 0.1 percent of its GDP on rail. By contrast, the U.K. spent four times that; the French and Australians spent six times more. The rest of the developed world understands that rail transport is societally and economically beneficial — and that it’s cheaper (read: more fiscally conservative) to upgrade and maintain systems on a continuous basis, rather than to upgrade them when they’re way past broken.
Or, of course, to let them waste away.
This lack of funding and attention caught up with us two weeks ago, when eight were killed and over 200 injured in a derailment that investigators say could have likely been prevented had automatic speed-managing “positive train control” systems been in place. Such systems are already near-universal for passenger lines in Europe and elsewhere.
Importantly, the system is already mandated for the Northeast Corridor, but Congress has consistently refused to provide adequate funding for the system’s complex implementation — for instance, to purchase radio frequencies the system would rely upon.
Fancy train stations will have to wait.
Some argue that it’s improper to “use” the Philadelphia accident to call for increased funding and development for transportation. During an intense congressional committee debate to slash Amtrak funding by $252 million — the day after the crash — a Republican congressman chastised a Democratic colleague’s criticism of the proposed (and ultimately approved) cuts, telling her: “Don't use this tragedy in that way. It [is] beneath you.”
That’s nonsense. Generally, if something is wrong, you figure out why and then you fix it. Does that not apply for public policy? We absolutely must use this tragedy to prevent future disasters. Otherwise, we are spitting in the eyes of past (and future) victims.
We shouldn’t stop there. We must engage in aggressive development of an advanced 21st-century rail network. This is key to New York and the region.
Elsewhere, the public does demand government investment in infrastructure. People realize it’s better to have safe, fast and efficient transit systems rather than dangerous, slow and inefficient systems.
Governments realize this, too. So they invest serious money into the projects because they know they are beneficial to the public. Infrastructure investment helps to boost local and regional economies, facilitating the movement of people and goods across vast distances. Moreover, trains are energy efficient by leaps and bounds over cars and trucks.
In a time gone by, we, too, embarked on these sorts of grand projects. The Transcontinental Railroad linked the two halves of our young nation. In a later time, President Eisenhower — a Republican — pushed for the creation of the Interstate Highway System, which carved major thoroughfares through mountains, over valleys and across rivers. Can you even imagine such an ambitious project being proposed — and passed — today?
We are living in a world where more is possible, and we refuse to pursue it, instead choosing to be left behind by the developed world. We should instead be leading the way. At a bare minimum, we need to be increasing, rather than decreasing, Amtrak funding.
It’s great to claim we’re No. 1. But from time to time, we actually have to do something to prove it. While an appeal to our sense of national pride might be tempting, such appeals are fairly useless because our national government is broken. An appeal to the pride of our state is thus much more pragmatic.
In lieu of inadequate action from the federal government, New York needs to spearhead multi-state regional initiatives to make our rail system the envy of the world.
Steve Keller of Averill Park is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.