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May 20th, 2009
the no. 13 line
The Interstate Rail Defense Network

with Ana Maria Lima

A rail plan by another name could smell sweeter

Shakespeare mused that a rose would smell just as sweet by any other name. Not so for a public-works program. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s highway plan received instant public comprehension when he branded it the “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.” This name implies a national building program in which all states would be linked and troops and military equipment could move swiftly from coast to coast and border to border. It also has sticking power. While “defense” may have been dropped along the way, everybody still refers to it as “The Interstate.” We’ve had 10 presidents since Eisenhower and many party-in-power swings, yet the Interstate has survived them all.

President Obama’s high-speed rail plan is noble but sounds like and is today just a way to speed trips between certain cities (10 corridors at the moment). That’s just too short-sighted. We need a vision that links the country, all the major urban centers, together with high-speed rail. It must be a network plan; not just a corridor plan. And it must have a name. Here’s our candidate: The Interstate Rail Defense Network. To build the constituency for such a network it is worth looking at how “Ike” did it.

The Interstate Genesis: A cross-country trip in 1919

The Interstate Highway System as we know it today was the product of a vision. In 1919 Lieutenant Dwight D. Eisenhower crossed the country from Washington to San Francisco in a military truck convoy. The trip was extremely slow, taking 62 days. In his memoirs he wrote that the journey “had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways.” As Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, Eisenhower experienced firsthand Germany’s autobahn network of superhighways. At that time the German autobahn network was known to include some of the best roads in the world. He had noted that even after heavy bombing of German roads during World War II military convoys managed to get through because of the design of the autobahn. Sparked by these two experiences, and with the backdrop of a Cold War that led to specters of mass evacuations of cities after nuclear bombings, President Eisenhower urged Congress to enact the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, creating the interstate system, which is today called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. In President Eisenhower’s words, “This was one of the things that I felt deeply about, and I made a personal and absolute decision to see that the nation would benefit by it.” For this reason, President Eisenhower is known as the “Father of the Interstate System.”

The development of the Interstate Highway System revolutionized transportation in the United States. It allowed people to travel more freely than ever before, while also stimulating commerce and bolstering national security. But, after fifty years of thriving, the success of the highway system is at last beginning to falter. Commerce is foundering as traffic congestion impedes goods from moving freely. The safety of the public is at risk as auto accidents continue to increase (there were 41,059 traffic fatalities in 2007). Finally, our environment is suffering for the astonishing quantity of greenhouse gases emitted by cars and planes each year. Now it’s time for a second revolution – one that addresses and improves upon all of President Eisenhower’s visionary goals plus those newly pertinent to today’s world. It’s time to stop thinking superhighway and start thinking superrailway!

A National Train Network is a win (less congestion)-win (fewer greenhouse gases)-win (safer)-win (less reliance on foreign oil).

One passenger train has the potential to remove 500-600 cars from the road and one freight train can eliminate up to 200 trucks. By decongesting the highway system, goods can be transported more easily both by truck and by rail. This could effectively improve commerce which, in turn, would aid our ailing economy.

A national rail network can also aid the military transport of freight and people, in the event of a national defense crisis or natural disaster, with its high-speed trains crisscrossing the country, and by decongesting highways for military vehicles.

Rail is also proven to be a far safer mode of transportation than the automobile. According to the American Public Transportation Association, in 2008 the fatality rate for traveling by rail was .03 per 100 million passenger miles, while the fatality rate for traveling by car was .74 per 100 million passenger miles. By shifting a large portion of our population to rail, we also significantly improve public safety.

In terms of the environment, air and auto travel consume about fifty percent more energy per passenger-mile than rail. It has been said that a 60 percent reduction in flights is what is necessary to stabilize CO2 levels. However, most travelers consider time and cost over environmental impacts when choosing their mode of transport. Thus, travelers almost always opt for air or auto. In the busy northeast corridor, planes are the fastest mode of travel while cars are the cheapest. Even between New York City and Philadelphia, where rail is the fastest mode, it is so much cheaper to travel by car that most travelers end up driving. For short- and mid-distance trips (of up to say, 500 miles), for the sake of commerce, public safety, and the environment, we really need to do whatever possible to make rail the most attractive option.

It is clear that a real U.S. rail system could have the ability to re-revolutionize transportation as well as reduce our impact on the environment. Thankfully, the Obama administration has taken the first steps toward implementing a network of national high-speed rail. President Obama has set forth a high-speed rail plan and has allocated $8 billion to begin construction. In his words, “high-speed rail is long overdue, and this plan lets American travelers know that they are not doomed to a future of long lines at the airports or jammed cars on the highways.” We applaud this statement and are delighted that rail is finally getting the attention it deserves. Now we need specific, quantifiable goals.

A plan for 2050

Today, rail in the U.S. accounts for approximately 5.6 billion passenger miles of travel each year (as compared with 516 billion on airlines and 2.5 trillion in private automobiles). Let’s look to a ten-fold increase. That means that by 2050 we should be able to achieve about 56 billion miles of passenger travel by rail annually. Given the relative fatality rates of each mode (discussed earlier), by shifting 56 billion miles of passenger travel to rail by 2050, we can expect to save approximately 400 lives each year. Likewise, the energy savings could be tremendous. Given the relative energy savings of rail, we can reduce energy consumption by trillions of BTU’s annually.

Financing the plan

So how do we think this can be done? President Obama’s $8 billion is a good start. Indeed, one of the intentions of committing those funds was to capitalize on the economic engine of building rail. We think the federal government needs to increase its investment. Construction of tracks should be 100% subsidized by the federal government. After all, roads (the equivalent of tracks for rail) are almost always fully subsidized. In our opinion, there should be little or no capacity increases on the Interstate Highway System over the next four decades; what money would have been spent on capacity increases should be shifted to the Interstate Rail Network. We suggest shifting just $10 billion per year from highways to high-speed rail for the next 40 years.

The federal government should also seek to establish public-private partnerships (PPP’s). By leveraging investment from the private sector, infrastructure projects nationwide are being built and operated with widespread success in returns. And PPP’s are beginning to pop up for rail as well. The California High-Speed Rail Authority currently anticipates $4.5 to $7 billion in public-private partnership investment for the state’s planned high-speed rail system. Such a model should be incorporated into national thinking and for inclusion into an Infrastructure Investment Bank, as proposed by Senators Dodd (D) and Hagel (R) and supported by candidate Obama, as it could prove critical to the success of national rail. We suggest aiming for $100 billion in private investment funds for a total spending on high-speed rail of $500 million by 2050.

Trains are Romantic

But beyond investment and faster trains, we need to change the public’s perception of rail travel. Trains used to be romantic. The vision was of a candlelit dinner with a good bottle of wine and white linen tablecloths, rolling alongside a river at sunset, and arriving at your destination calm and refreshed.“There was a romance to train travel then,” said Carl Erskine, who pitched two no-hitters with the Brooklyn Dodgers . “When you walked into the dining car, you could smell the steaks. There was heavy silver, good china and white linen tablecloths as you went out of Grand Central along the Hudson River and across upstate New York. (Sports of the Times: The Romance of Teams Traveling by Train, by Dave Anderson, May 10, 2009)
Perhaps this image is not quite realistic anymore. But maybe we can at least bring back some of the romanticism once associated with trains. Amtrak uses vintage posters to create a feeling of nostalgia. This is the right idea. We should start thinking about spreading this image even further or even creating newer, more modern images of rail that are equally as quixotic.

President Obama’s Legacy: “The Father of the Interstate Rail Network”

Let’s finally make rail work. As President Eisenhower was the “Father of the Interstate System,” so President Obama has the potential to become the “Father of the Interstate Rail Network.” It really takes a visionary to enact such major infrastructural changes in our country. But President Obama is a visionary and the seed is already beginning to sprout. We urge this administration to think huge because it’s time to prepare our nation for its next step: a new system of superrailways.

A note of thanks to Dan McNichol, author of The Roads That Built America. My inspiration for the connection to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1919 trek came after I heard Mr. McNichol speak recently.

  • sam

    Unfortunately your ideea to not fund capacity growth in highways is short sighted. While I agree that, as a resident of Phoenix, AZ, 8 lanes in and out of the core should be enough, to limit any rural capacity increases reduces the effectiveness and economy of short-haul, especially for truckers who make such small trips to supply farm-towns, insdustrial mini-centers, and the such.

    I agree that urban capacity should be limited, but even then, if you spend 45 min in a morning commute, is that a problem with the funding/political transit adn construction business, or a socio-economic issue that encourages sprawl.

    Sprawl and inter-city rail are sperate things, and the roadway capacity issue bridges that precariously.

  • Jim Bush

    The recent surface transportation infrastructure commission found that user fees are accounting for only 60% of the costs of roads, down from 75% in the 1980s. No wonder roads are crowded and pot-holed.

    The Soviets kept food prices below the cost of production and distribution and got lineups in the food stores.

    Soviet-style pricing of roads is seductive for suburban motorists and housing developers, who typically manifest a sense of entitlement seldom seen in ADC mothers. Even when they move beyond the established infrastructure network in zero-sum growth metropolitan areas, they believe they are entitled to duplicate roads, sewers, schools, etc. at subsidized prices. Sprawl is bankrupting America.

    A year ago, we were borrowing $1 billion per day to pay for imported oil. That’s one of the reasons the housing bubble popped — exposing the toxicity of the mortgage loans made in anticipation of ever rising housing prices.

    Even Canada, which is our major oil supplier, does not subsidize fuelish sprawl. Even Edmonton (hockey team is the Oilers) has light rail transit and good bus service.

    God Bless America!

  • jerzy

    The most serious transportation problems in the U.S. are within metropolitan regions, not between them. High speed rail is not useful for most of the short trips that currently generate huge levels of congestion and pollution in our living spaces. It would be folly to spend all of our transport money on making it easier to get between cities when the largest problem, by far, is within cities. Moreover, our cities are already very spread out and rail systems with their corridor orientations and very few access points simply cannot serve the majority of trips in a very diffuse travel pattern effectively. MASS TRANSIT works in just a few places, but cannot possibly meet the needs for internal travel in the great majority of our cities. Put in a High Speed line in the Boston-Washington corridor if you can find the billions needed but don’t allocate many more scarce resouces to the mythical national network. What a silly idea.

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  • John Niles

    The construction and materials activity (diesel trucks moving steel, etc) to lay down a new high-speed rail network will likely generate more greenhouse gas (GHG) than will be saved later by car drivers switching to train riding, IF future cars are made to emit less GHG into the atmosphere.

    IF inter-city buses were to run cleaner, be more attractive, and increase in frequency of service, we could move as many people as trains would to more places for far less money. The roads already go everywhere. Train tracks never will. I hear that inter-city buses in the Boston-Washington corridor are already giving Amtrak’s fastest trains serious competition.

    I do think spending Federal stimulus money to fix dangerous at-grade crossings and worn out sections of track on today’s rail network is a reasonable initiative, but let us remember that European and Japanese fast trains cost taxpayers in those countries billions and billions ongoing.

  • Art Lewellan

    I agree with Jerzy. It’s obvious that “most transportation problems are within metropolitan regions, not between them.” Basic improvement to Amtrak service is money better spent than on enormously expensive, electrified high-speed rail lines through mostly rural routes where the environmental benefits of electrification are moot.

    Electrification is more effectively employed on metropolitan area express (MAX) light rail systems. These have far more potential to solve traffic problems by guiding urban growth into transit-oriented development, as opposed to sprawl.

    Automobiles are a ‘Constitutional Inequity’. They present a severe impediment to the other basic modes of urban/suburban travel — walking, mass transit and bicycling. In dominating this ‘modal split’, (~90% of all trips in US are taken by car), automobiles even present a severe impediment to their own optimal function. By constitutionally limiting gas tax revenues to roads-only investment, even roads don’t work optimally. Go figure.

  • Matthew Watkins

    I have to agree with Jerzy. Metropolitan transit agencies are in crisis. I work for the St Louis Metro, and we are in a dire funding situation. Earlier this year we had to cut 34% of our bus routes and decrease light rail frequency. Community members have been and still are hesitant to pass tax increases to fund transit. Before we start building a national network we need to make sure that our existing transportation systems don’t shrivel away due to a lack of funding. If you want to discuss more about these issues I write for Metro’s blog at

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