After the economic crash of 2008, there was an immediate clamor for "New Deal"-esque infrastructure rebuilding. With all types of "shovel-ready" projects lined up, the initial stimulus bill was passed. Most of these projects dealt with road and bridge repair. Very little, however, was allocated for Big projects, large infrastructure items that America has done in the past, like Hoover Dam. With dangerous bridges and an antiquated electrical grid, it seemed like we were poised to finally make that commitment for the future.
That commitment didn't happen of course. The problem is both a curious dynamic between conservative and liberal policy in general, and Republican obstructionism against President Obama in particular (as well as President Clinton - we'll explain why in a minute). In general, Republicans don't like government spending taxpayer money on anything other than the military (and themselves, the hypocritical bastards). Liberals like to use socialistic solutions to large problems (like transportation, fire and police services, etc.). Where anti-socialism paranoia prevents intelligent solutions, the private solution is often burdened with regulations intended to prevent opportunistic businesses from taking advantage of the public trust. The result is a worst-of-both-worlds situation where private industry operates on a "barely meeting minimum expectations" standard in an effort to maximize profits.
Meanwhile, as we funnel taxpayer funds into the pockets of well-connected government contractors, our infrastructure suffers. As we spend over half of collected taxpayer funds on a bloated military, other countries fly past us into the 21st century. The commuter train crash/derailment in Connecticut
on Friday is a sad reminder of what happens when we set priorities on things that don't matter, and neglect what we really need. Investigators found a cracked track. Did it cause the accident or did the accident cause it? In reality, the cause of the wreck is an aging infrastructure that needs to be fixed.
There's a bit of "common wisdom" that people will not give up their cars for train travel. The problem with that bit of "wisdom" is that it's not true. The "carmeggedon" that's expected as people have to drive into NYC for work until the rail is fixed and the NTSB gives it its blessing is one proof that denies the false consensus. Sure, the NYC area is a nightmare for driving, there are a LOT of cars there, and the subway and other regional transportation options are unlike anywhere else in the country. But those options are there because they work
Comparisons to European models are often denied because America is so spread out. Sure you can take Amtrak from NY to Atlanta, but why would you? It's as slow as driving a car, and as expensive as flying. Unless you want to make the slow journey part of the experience, or are deathly afraid of flying (or being groped by a TSA agent), there' no impetus to embrace rail travel.
The answer of course is high-speed rail. This holy grail is often given lip-service, but rarely given any serious attention. Again naysayers pronounce it's too expensive and would not get used. The experience of the one high-speed rail line in North America - the Acela - shows that is not the case. The AmTrak Acela currently has over half of the DC-to-NYC travel market
, overtaking air travel. FYI - AmTrak has a special relationship with the U.S. government, receiving funding, yet still operating as a for-profit private company.
The Acela shows, however, the problems with the current system. It can operate at 150 MPH, but rarely does, because of speed limitations over aging bridges
. There is also the weight of the trains, due to governmental regulations on structural crash resistance for the cars
, something not required in Europe because they have a modern infrastructure on the rails, and crashes are essentially non-existent.
Part of the reason France doesn't have this problem is because they are not afraid of a little socialism. They nationalised the rail system
, ensuring that rail travel was consistent, held to a modern standard, and well-funded. Their maglev train system runs at up to 186 MPH on a consistent basis
. I've taken the train from Paris to London; it's amazing. Their "slower" Téoz trains travel at "only" 125 MPH.
The Acela was developed when Bill Clinton was president and the economy was booming on the Tech Bubble. He still managed to get it done with the Republicans hounding him with their witch hunt. President Obama is also facing Republican witch-hunts, with the added problem of an economy still suffering a hangover from the 2008 crash, and a Republican Congress fixated on constraining all spending. There is also the McCarthy-esque fixation on anything that could be construed as "socialism". With all these roadblocks impeding any sort of potential to progress, the hope of a modernized transit system looks slim.
When comparing our failures to keep up with other countries' success stories, the response often is "yeah, but that won't work here". The rationales given are generally based in ideologies, not possibilities or practicalities. If we can build a Hoover Dam, if we can build the Eisenhower interstate system, if we can build the largest most well-funded military in the world, we can certainly bring our electrical, train, and air traffic control systems up to modern standards. It just requires us to agree that the government can and should do it.