Paul Andersen: Fair Game |

Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

If you have ever taken Amtrak from Glenwood Springs to Denver, you know you can drive your car the same distance in about half the time. The Amtrak line through Colorado is a scenic route for passengers in no particular hurry.

Scenic train rides are great if you’ve got time to simply gaze at passing scenery. If you’re trying to get somewhere, however, Amtrak is not the practical choice, not from Glenwood nor from most other locations in the country. The fastest passenger rail service in the U.S. is between New York and Washington D.C., where the high-speed Acela runs. By comparison, Amtrak’s long-haul routes are antiquated and run in slow-motion.

Fast, efficient, long distance passenger rail service in the U.S. is a dismal failure, and for good reason. America has long promoted and subsidized the automotive and airplane industries while passenger rail service has been treated like an unwanted stepchild.

Finally, things may change. President Barack Obama outlined recently a “long overdue” plan to build high-speed rail service that could rival air and car travel, promote fuel efficiency, create jobs, and rekindle passenger rail service in which the U.S. was once a world leader.

That leadership began with the transcontinental railroad, built during the Civil War as a means of opening the American West to a flood of European immigrants. This was Abraham Lincoln’s grandest public works project, and it changed the face of America with continuous ground transportation from coast to coast.

“Next to winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery, building the first transcontinental railroad was the greatest achievement of the American people in the nineteenth century,” wrote historian Steven Ambrose in “Nothing Like it in the World.” “Not until the completion of the Panama Canal in the earth twentieth century was it rivaled as an engineering feat.”

The transcontinental railroad drew wonder and amazement as the continent was spanned by ribbons of steel. Ulysses S. Grant described his awe: “I thought the perfection of rapid transit had been reached,” exulted Grant. “We traveled at least 18 miles an hour when at full speed, and made the full distance averaging 12 miles per hour. This seemed like annihilating space!”

After the U.S. government paved the American highway system and subsidized airports across the country, the only thing annihilating about the railroads was the annihilated passenger service. Freight became, and still is, the dominant use of rail in the U.S. today.

“My high-speed rail proposal,” said Obama, “will lead to innovations that change the way we travel in America.” The president has pledged $8 billion in stimulus funds to rebuild rail travel in America. This move may have as profound an effect on the nation as the transcontinental railroad did in the mid 1800s.

High-speed rail is a no-brainer for the big commuter routes linking urban centers, but it may not be feasible on cross-country routes for some time because of the huge investment required. Still, it’s a worthwhile dream for the future.

High-speed rail, where trains could travel at 150 mph, would do more than annihilate space. It would put rail on an even par with driving and flying ” both of which are becoming economically and environmentally untenable. Imagine relaxing in a coach seat and traveling from Denver to Chicago in just eight hours, or Salt Lake City to San Francisco in the same amount of time.

Amtrak passes daily within 45 miles of Aspen. There is little chance the Rio Grande line, on which it runs, will ever become high-speed because of mountainous topography. Still, with some improvements to the line, high-speed trains to Denver and Salt Lake would put train travelers within easy reach of Glenwood Springs, and ideally at a cost-efficient rate.

For decades, federal and state governments have subsidized car and air travel at the expense of rail. If that tide turns with Obama’s pledge, the U.S. may once again lead the world in efficient, attractive, high-speed ground transportation that will hearken to a century and a half ago when America first led the world with passenger rail service.

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