Getting US Back on Track

Widen the roads to let more cars on the highways and add more routes and planes to carry more passengers through the air. Such steps are often touted as the most immediate, quick-fix solutions to the country's ever-growing and increasingly frustrating traffic jams on the freeways and in the skies.

There's talk in Washington of growing the infamous Beltway to some 20 lanes. But before we pave over more land, or line up airplanes nose to tail in the air, let's pay added attention to trains, especially the fast ones.

The US, whose westward expansion was helped by a monumental effort to build the transcontinental railroad, has let its trains languish. Trains are a staple and mostly efficient mode of travel in Europe. High-speed trains are the norm in Japan.

Amtrak had a successful run of the first US bullet-type train last month. The Acela regional train between Boston, New York, and Washington pulled encouragingly into the station a couple of minutes early. It departs with paying passengers Dec. 11.

States, too, are seeing great possibilities in the use of trains to move people on shorter hauls. (They can't compete with planes for going long distances.) New York is upgrading tracks and rebuilding trains to go faster, up to 125 m.p.h. Nine Midwestern states have plans for a $5 billion hub-and-spoke network (not unlike the airlines) to move passengers by high-speed rail. Chicago would be the main hub.

The US Department of Transportation awarded a big contract to develop the Chicago-St. Louis high-speed train corridor.

Florida voters said yes in November to a ballot initiative approving high-speed rail. Washington and Oregon have fixed their tracks and bought new trains from Spain.

Money's still quite a big boulder on the track, but states and businesses taking advantage of the good economy to get some movement on this idea are going in the right direction. The country urgently needs such transportation alternatives, and the public investment to make it go. Aging tunnels, bridges, and curves need attention. Meanwhile, sensor-driven tilt systems are proving they can take the curves at higher speeds.

A bill introduced in Congress would allow Amtrak to sell bonds to raise $10 billion over 10 years, with states covering 20 percent of the cost.

But the US also needs citizens willing to embrace mass transit. With that, it just might happen. Full speed, and steam, ahead.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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