Some thoughts on US Trains

Geneva Travel Blog

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I love trains.  I love public transportation and I love governments that spend money on infrastructure.

So, with the French breaking a world rail speed-record earlier this year (574 kph / 357 mph), I'm going to rant for a second about rail travel in the United States.

Did you know that the Federal government provides 80% matching funds to states for road construction but nothing for rails?  The funding obviously works, the US has great roads everywhere in the country but our rail system is nonexistant.

Did you also know that the Federal Rail Administration (yes, it's basically the FAA but for trains) is a complete joke?  Here's a story from the development of Amtrak's Acela (the closest thing the U.S. has to a high-speed train)

"In order to procure the world's best off-the-shelf train for the least amount of money, Amtrak decided to buy an existing design from a European or Japanese manufacturer, who have decades of experience building and operating high-speed trains. The winner of this competition was a consortium of Bombadier and Alstom (the French TGV builder).

Then, in 1999 with Acela planning fully underway, the FRA pulled the rug out by issuing regulations for high-speed rail service requiring trains to withstand 800,000 pounds force without deformation. The 800,000 figure is an arbitrary number dating back to the 1920s; this mandate has since been increased to 1 million pounds.

The buffering requirement confounded Bombadier. Train weight is of crucial importance as it affects the amount of track wear, noise, and energy costs. To meet the buffering regulation, the train would have to be significantly bulked-up. The result was a highspeed train nearly twice as heavy as its European counterparts. As such, the Acela has been described variously as a tank-on-wheels and a bank-vault-on-wheels. Indeed, an overweight train like Acela would be banned from the European high speed rail network.

Because the extra weight put so much strain on the train body (which was never designed to handle suchloads) trainsets suffered excessive wheel wear, cracks in the yaw damper and brake rotors, and other problems which can probably never be completely fixed. Whereas the original contract called for trains to run 400,000 miles between equipment failures, the Acela can barely manage 20,000 miles."

What's frustrating about the whole thing is that this is the kind of infrastructure development where the Federal Government can do the most good, like Eisenhower with the US Interstate System.  I'd like to see any political candidate talk about transportation infrastructure improvements.  Airports are clogged, cars are massive polluters, rail travel is one very practical solution.

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photo by: jhwelsch