The powerful anti-green lobby in the US is putting transport advances into a siding, says Peter Knight
In a country that was built on the benefits of the railroad, high-speed rail has become the green villain of conservative politics. The best way for macho Republicans to strut their stuff is to say no to spending billions of government dollars on new trains.
That’s what Florida governor Rick Scott did recently, rejecting the chance to spend $2.4bn for a line from Tampa to Orlando. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, just cancelled an $8.5bn rail tunnel from his state to Manhattan, forgoing about $3bn in federal money. And Tea Party-supported governors of Wisconsin and Ohio have manfully rejected federal dollars (and the jobs the funds would bring) for improvements to railroads in their states.
President Obama’s fast rail projects designed to reduce dependence on the car and bring the US up to speed with modern nations were all but beheaded in recent budget negotiations.
The irony of the negativity of fiscal conservatives – natural followers of arch capitalist Ayn Rand – railing against rail has not been lost on film critics assessing the long-awaited movie of the seminal capitalist novel Atlas Shrugged. The book centres on the struggle of Dagney Taggart to build her Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, symbolising the modern thrust of capitalism.
Thrusting is proving extremely difficult in the US today, unless you want to go backwards at speed. It is a country that appears to be in technological retreat – experience the quality of a mobile phonecall – as myopic populist politicians grapple with the budget deficit. They are not the most creative of people and think only in terms of slash and burn.
Because of the huge cost of building and maintaining rail infrastructure, much of the investment has to come from taxpayers. Other societies accept this and governments around the world are funding the sort of rail projects that the world’s only superpower finds too costly.
China plans to be running 42 high-speed lines by 2012. Europe has plans to expand its network, with connections between Portugal and Spain and better links between France and Spain. Saudi Arabia is forging ahead with its high-speed plans, as are other Gulf states. Even South Africa plans – with Chinese aid – to run a fast link between Johannesburg and the important port of Durban.
All this while the US retreats into ever greater reliance on the combustion engine at a time when fuel costs are increasing and congested road systems are under severe strain.
Take the B train
While large amounts of US freight are transported by rail, passenger services are concentrated in populous regions, such as the north-east. Amtrak, the state-subsidised rail company, runs a fast service between Boston, New York and Washington DC. Called the Acela, this is a junior, slower version of Europe’s high-speed rail.
The service is popular but its reliability suffers from poor investment in the track. What remains of Amtrak’s regional services are under-used, unreliable and desperately in need of the investment so happily rejected by right-wing governors.
The regional services in New Jersey and New York state – schlepping the commuters to Manhattan and back – are well used and surprisingly reliable. But their running costs are high, suffering from the same unionisation issues that afflicted the old British Rail.
I have been on trains where there were definitely more ticket collectors than passengers. They also use a ticketing system that Dagney Taggert must have invented: lots of pieces of paper and much clip-clipping by the collectors.
Other than unions, possibly the biggest black mark against rail travel here – if you have a Republican world view – is its greenness. Politicians influenced by the Tea Party like to bundle rail subsidy with action on climate change, renewable energy support and the introduction of electric cars. Their ideological reasoning is that rail will increase the deficit or lead to higher taxes.
That this is also true for roads, bridges, ports and huge government subsidies to the oil and agriculture industries, is something they conveniently ignore.
What is so sad about the dominant anti-green political mood is how it is aiding and abetting this great country’s technological decline. If I were a conspiracy theorist I’d say that China is funding the Tea Party and fiscal conservatives who now sing the dominant political tune in Washington.
Their support for a retreat from the future will leave the US hamstrung with a crumbling infrastructure and a ruined manufacturing sector. Expect very little boo-hoo for the imminent extinction of the Chattanooga choo-choo.
Peter Knight is president of Context America.