Rough Ride for Rail

This has been a tough week for high speed rail. China, which is often referred to enviously for its big investments in this mode of transportation (I admit to have done just that on these pages in the past), witnessed a tragic crash between two trains that killed dozens of people.The Post's lead editorial on Wednesday discussed the implications for the U.S., namely that by their lights it is not a model we should pursue.

And then today the L.A. Times reports that a Cambridge Systematics study of ridership potential for California high speed rail is flawed according to peer reviewers. This cast doubt on figures that back up the viability of that particular, massive project.

After these events as well as setbacks elsewhere, most notably in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin thanks to actions by newly-minted Republican governors, it's worth taking a hard look at our plans for rail expansion in this country. Fortunately, as Amtrak President Alex Kummant has said, the first and most important thing we need as a nation is an actual policy that provides a blueprint for the future of all modes of transportation and their connections (he's quoted saying this in James McCommons' excellent book, Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service). As I've said before, such a plan should include not just highways and rail, but aviation and intercity buses.

And it should, as Secretary LaHood and his team appear to be doing, set the bar at appropriate levels depending on the corridor when investing in rail. Phillip Longman makes a great case for this in the Washington Monthly, saying that it's foolish to aim for gold-plated high speed rail as in France and Japan in the context of tight fiscal constraints and of a passenger rail system that would benefit from a host of more incremental improvements.

So yes, a rough ride for rail this week, and in fact this year. But with a real plan that is adjusted to the nation's needs and fiscal capacity we can push ahead.

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