This past weekend, I fell victim to what can only be called “Murphy’s Law of Train Transportation.” With a 5:50 Friday evening departure time, my friend and I left Old Campus with 50 minutes to spare, hoping to catch a red line shuttle to Union Station. After 35 minutes of anxious waiting, we found out that the red line shuttle had been rerouted, thanks to record snowfall. In a last-ditch effort, we frantically cut across the New Haven Green, hoping to catch the final ride to the station before our train’s departure. Luckily, we got to the corner of Chapel and Temple just in time — that is, just in time to watch the shuttle speed by, splashing sleet all over our persons and luggage.
We hadn’t seen a cab for the past half-hour and the prospect of catching or calling one seemed fruitless. So we made a final, fateful decision: we’re going to run for it. After the one-and-a-half mile sprint through the icy New Haven streets, luggage in tow, we bolted through the doors of Union Station, seconds from the scheduled departure time. Above us on the schedule board shone the words “delayed” and “cancelled.” While the delay gave us an opportunity to catch our breath, it also got me thinking about the American rail system — and how it could be so much better.
Our railroads and train cars are stuck in the past. Founded in 1971, Amtrak (a portmanteau of “America” and “track”) is a federally-owned corporation that runs passenger trains along several routes across the entire country. Spanning over 21,000 miles of track, Amtrak travels to over 500 destinations in 46 different states. As the only major interstate train travel service, its annual 30 million riders have no other travel options short of flying or driving. With its monopoly power, the corporation can afford to continue running obsolete engines, show less than stellar on-time statistics, and run only one high-speed rail service. By employing such anachronistic technology, and refusing to push for new technologies, the Amtrak Corporation is squandering a prime opportunity to put millions of Americans back to work, usher in a new era of energy-efficient travel, and revolutionize the way that citizens travel, from sea to shining sea.
The only high-speed rail in the United States — the Acela Express — runs along the East Coast from Washington, D.C. to Boston. Though the federal government did, in 2009, appropriate $8 billion for railroad innovation, relative to the rest of the developed world, we still fall far short. The Acela has a top speed of 150 miles per hour, but averages only slightly more than 70. China, on the other hand, has the world’s longest high-speed rail line spanning over 4,600 miles (greater than the entire width of the United States from coast to coast). Its train engines can reach top speeds of 220 miles per hour, and all average around 120.
Furthermore, the Chinese government isn’t content with its already superlative high-speed rail service. They have been experimenting with magnetic levitation technology, which can reach ground speeds of up to 300 miles per hour. With trains of that efficiency running in the United States, passengers could get from New York City to Washington, D.C. in under an hour. The Chinese government has funded railroad research and innovations, creating countless jobs along the way, while simultaneously buttressing their economy. The trains run on time in China — and faster.
This past weekend in New Haven saw two delayed trains and a fully malfunctioning engine. While train travel on the East Coast is convenient enough, it should be better. With a more dedicated effort to innovate transportation technologies, our rail system could be expansive, efficient, economically fortifying and environmentally friendly. We should move modernizing our railroads higher up our national agenda; we have a lot of catch-up to do. Like Roosevelt during the Depression, the government can use the massive amounts of recently appropriated taxpayer money to create jobs through valuable public works. Our moribund train transportation system is broken, and it’s about time we get it back on the right track.
Joel Sircus is a freshman in Trumbull College.