Thursday, February 5, 2009

Revive the U.S. railroad system

The "stimulus" package that is presently being tossed back and forth as a political football in the U.S. Senate contains $18.5 billion of spending under a renewable-energy related title.

This spending would include $2 billion for renewable energy research, including biomass and geothermal projects; $6.2 billion to help make homes more energy efficient (via a weatherization type program); and $4.5 billion to modernize the electric grid (the so-called "smart grid" to help move solar-thermal and wind-generated energy to population centers).

Most of these provisions make sense and will presumably help create "green" jobs at a time of great economic suffering.

Most people agree that we can kill two birds (if not a whole flock) with one stone here; create energy-related jobs, give renewable energy a boost to reduce some of our self-destructive foreign-oil dependence (although only conservation can really make inroads there), and ameliorate some of the country's pressing infrastructure problems, like dangerous bridges and lousy railroad systems.

How does the stimulus address our antique passenger-railroad system?

I've been in Switzerland and experienced what a world-class train system is like. The system itself does not overly depend on oil (it is electrified with largely nuclear power and hydropower), the trains are a great way to travel anywhere, even to the smallest villages, and a Swiss does not have to own a car (although many do).

Suffice it to say, the U.S. does not have one of these systems. A bad energy crisis and consequent gas/diesel shortages could quickly lead to a food transportation crisis.

I love the Acela high-speed service to New York City, but this is a rare example in the U.S. of a modern rail system.

The New York Times reports that one of the stimulus bill's provisions that is likely to be dropped is $800 million for Amtrak, to reduce the cost of the $825 billion package and make it more palatable to lawmakers.

The Amtrak proposal would specifically be allocated only for "the repair, rehabilitation, or upgrade of railroad assets or infrastructure."

This sounds like a practical expenditure to me, considering that the federal government is willing to hand multi-billions of dollars to failing financial institutions, only to have those funds disappear into the ether. A country's train system, particularly a geographically dispersed country like the U.S., is one of its most essential assets.

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