High-Speed Rail Is Dead in America. Should We Mourn It?

The intersection of government and technology.
Dec. 7 2011 8:24 PM

Requiem for a Train

High-speed rail is dead in America. Should we mourn it?

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The modern federal government isn’t good at solving long-term problems (if it ever was). Most Republicans don’t believe the government should solve problems. They believe big government, in fact, is the one of the only problems that can’t be solved by the free market. Democrats, as seen in the failures of all of these railroad projects, err by assuming that the government can solve problems more effectively than it realistically can.

Ultimately, high-speed rail’s backers weren’t as staunch as its detractors. Barack Obama and congressional Democrats put their political lives on the line for health care, addressing an immediate problem whose consequences were personal and visceral. The nation’s outdated infrastructure is a major dilemma but one that doesn’t feel as pressing to most voters and legislators. It’s our children’s problem now.

If there’s a silver lining to high-speed rail’s spectacular failure, it’s that these trains were outdated years ago. Even if all went according to the Obama administration’s plans, the nation’s rail network would have remained meager and backward by comparison to those in Japan and China. Those countries are already building trains that run via magnetic levitation. Suspended a few inches above a guideway, maglev trains fly through the air at speeds greater than 300 mph, with minimal wear and tear. At this point in their development, maglev tracks are dauntingly expensive to build. But those costs might well come down by the time America is ready to get serious about its transportation infrastructure. At this rate, there seems to be plenty of time.