Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Need for Speed

Florida Congressman John Mica has a radical idea: He wants to develop high-speed rail service between New York and Washington, D.C.

We know what you're thinking – isn't there already a high-speed train between New York and Washington? Unfortunately, nobody who's taken the Amtrak Acela train would suffer from this confusion. The Acela service, much hyped before its launch, currently shaves only about 30 minutes off Amtrak's regular service between the capital and the Big Apple, taking two hours and 48 minutes – when it's on time. The high-speed train that connects Paris, France and Brussels, Belgium covers approximately the same distance in one hour, 22 minutes.

Mr. Mica's idea is to tap the creative energies of the private sector to get the N.Y.-D.C. route down to under two hours. We wish him luck. The Republican's idea is the best thing about the $14.4 billion Amtrak authorization bill the House recently passed, which is larded with union giveaways and grants for expanding money-losing service around the country.

If Mr. Mica's proposal makes it into law, the Department of Transportation would solicit proposals from the private sector for building dedicated high-speed tracks within the right-of-way between the two cities. Amtrak could participate in the bidding, if it chose to. But the real benefit would be in seeing whether private rail companies can come up with a plan to do what Amtrak couldn't – build a high-speed service that is competitive in cost and time with the airline shuttles that ply that route today.

The Senate version of the bill doesn't contain a proposal like Mr. Mica's, and Senators such as New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg are resisting the idea in the senior chamber. "I think it's very difficult to privatize railroads and have it operate efficiently," Mr. Lautenberg has said, apparently without irony.

But Mr. Mica's provision doesn't privatize anything; it merely asks the private sector to offer proposals for doing something Amtrak couldn't do, despite spending billions trying. It might well be that entrepreneurs can't come up with an economically viable plan for such a train, but even then we will have learned something about high-speed train travel in the U.S., and at minimal cost to the taxpayer.

On the other hand, if someone like Richard Branson, who's building private high-speed train service in Britain, thinks he can make a go of it in one of the most heavily trafficked corridors in the world, there's no harm in letting him try. It can hardly be worse than Amtrak.


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