Editorial: The slow pace to high-speed rail
Some regions of the Connecticut River Valley are becoming aware of the work being done to upgrade the railroad tracks that run from south to north through Northampton and Greenfield, in anticipation of increased Amtrak passenger train service. Part of the motivation behind the updates is to allow trains to run at higher speeds, in greater safety.
But if you’ve been keeping abreast of the larger picture when it comes to high-speed passenger rail in the United States, you’ve noticed that progress on the idea is moving at anything but a high rate of speed.
A number of different parties have a hand in creating this sluggishness.
On the political side, there are the divisions about spending taxpayer money for high-speed rail projects ... or in fact, any sort of public transportation. Should the development of rail lines and rolling stock that allow trains to travel at sustained speeds of 100 mph or more be a government endeavor, be left to private companies or become a combination of public and private interests? The differences about the viability of passenger train travel and whether government involvement and taxpayer money are appropriate has led some states to turn down such projects.
The debate also includes where such rail lines should be built.
Should it be the congested Northeast corridor, where the effort is focused on? Right now, the Acela, the Amtrak fast train between Boston and Washington, D.C., takes two hours, 45 minutes to travel from New York to Washington. With true high-speed rail, the time for this run would be 90 minutes.
Or should other parts of the country — California, Texas and Florida with their growing populations and highway congestion — be the beneficiary?
Divisions can also be found in communities that face change because of the proposed rail upgrades. What some people see as progress, others claim it to be a threat to their homes and their neighborhoods.
In Franklin County, we’ve recently had a glimpse of the differences of opinion on this kind of work in Whately and the upgrade of a crossing at Egypt Road. The debate was over whether the road should be closed or upgraded, and the hazards involved in having trains run through a neighborhood.
The contentiousness seen in Whately pales in comparison to other rail projects. For example, a project to link Los Angeles and San Francisco has been challenged in the courts, though just last month an appeals court threw out the lower court ruling that blocked the $68 billion plan.
All of this adds up to a slower pace for public transportation upgrades, despite a clear consensus that our highways are overloaded, and surveys that show the public would use trains if they were more reliable and faster.
But we can’t help to think that supporters of high-speed rail, from President Obama on down, have to do a better job of making the case for these projects.