No Silver Bullet, But Bullet Trains Are a Start

(See also the post from IowaGlobalWarming in the recent diary section. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

In remarkable parallel to the climate crisis, there is no single solution to reviving our economy – it will take a combination of innovative thinking and bold actions to face both challenges. The American Recovery and Investment Act (of which Jesse provides a great summary of energy-related features) illustrates that.

I want to take a moment to talk about one feature in the stimulus bill that occupied one sentence in his summary: high-speed passenger rail.

The American Recovery and Investment Act included a total of $9.3 billion for passenger rail: $8 billion for construction of high speed passenger rail and intercity passenger rail service and $1.3 billion for Amtrak (the National Railroad Passenger Corporation) rail investments. As I was talking about this today, the number of atrocious puns that came up was amazing:

  • “High speed passenger rail can get the economy back on track”
  • “Everyone’s getting on board with passenger rail”
  • “Trains can be a model for environomics*”
  • “The little stimulus package that could”

*environomics refers to developing a sustainable global economy

I could continue with the jokes, but you get the picture. However, I think it is worth noting that not only is there substantial support for high speed passenger rail in Congress (the original amount was $3 billion in the House and $2.25 billion in the Senate – apparently somebody in the conference committee likes us), but there is broad support among the public. Out here in the Midwest, we have been working to gain support and funding for a high speed passenger rail network, with its hub in Chicago. This system would provide high speed service to St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Madison, the Twin Cities and Omaha. For a little context, the trip from Omaha to Detroit is approximately a quarter of the width of the continental 48 states.

Map from

What is even more impressive to me is how rail can really be a model for how to actually engage diverse players in building a sustainable economy. Here in Iowa, we are building a coalition of labor, business and youth organizations (in addition to the traditional environmental groups) to work together on getting high speed passenger rail approved this year. And we’re not just talking liberal groups either. For example Jan Michaelson, a local conservative talk show host, had nothing but good things to say about rail when Andrew Snow from Iowa Global Warming joined his show this week. Talk about finally moving past partisanship – rail is one of the clearest vehicles to make this a reality (no apologies for the pun).

There are plenty of issues that can build a diverse base of support, but the thing is, high speed rail visibly makes lots of people’s lives easier. Upgrading building efficiency largely goes unnoticed except for electricity bills; people don’t see the wind energy powering their homes. But talk about saving yourself the hassle of driving several hours, not having to drive through traffic, and oh, did I mention that rail is about 3 times as efficient as driving and 6 times as efficient as flying. Oh, and hundreds to thousands of jobs will be created through construction and operation.

Rail has broad support, has a significant improvement in the ease of travel and will save countless vehicle miles traveled (well, you probably could count them, but it would keep you very busy). We can use rail as a way to build successful and diverse coalitions which we can then continue to work with to advance the less visible, less sexy aspects of sustainability. These relationships will be crucial to mobilizing society-wide action.

All aboard!

Originally posted on It’s Getting Hot In Here

About the Author(s)


  • It's about damned time...

    The last time I took the Zephyr route from Chicago to Osceola, Iowa, the trip took over fourteen hours.  There were problems with the switching that sidelined us for about five hours alone.  The switching and signal indicators failed and we were less than a mile and a half from a head-on with an east bound freight.

    BTW-My last trip took longer than the orignal Denver-Chicago Zephyr run back in 1936. [*ahem*] And Osceola is less than halfway. [*ahem-ahem*]

    My Madrid to Sevilla trip on the AVE (alta velocidad Espanola) train in December ’02? Whoa, 125 mph average speed.  

  • "America was built for high-speed rail"

    So says one of my favorite transportation bloggers, Bruce McF. Some of his work is here:

    He blogs here:


  • Iowa needs Des Moines to become a hub

    Des Moines could connect Chicago and Omaha and Kansas City and Minneapolis.  I know moving the Amtrack line out of southern Iowa would hurt the area, but there is a far great population in Iowa City/Cedar Rapids and Des Moines/Ames.

    Think about all the college students that could take the train home to Chicago or to the big city for a weekend trip or to visit other universities with exchange programs.

    • Right on

      I think you’re right, although a Minneapolis/Kansas City line is probably a long way off.

      I don’t think the loss of the Burlington-Ottumwa-Osceola line will hurt those communities very much (not a whole lot of local Amtrak jobs), at least not compared to the benefit of running the line through more populated areas.

      I also wonder what this means for the Chicago-Rockford-Dubuque proposed line.  

  • now I'm confused

    BruceMcF says you have to be in a “federally designated corridor” to get the high-speed rail money from the stimulus:


    Iowa doesn’t seem to be in one, and neither is Las Vegas. I had read elsewhere that a lot of the stimulus money for rail was going to build a Maglev train from southern California to Vegas.

  • interesting diary by Adam Terando

    ranking high-speed rail corridors likely to be funded by the stimulus:…

    Read the comment thread too.

  • High Speed Rail or Death

    I want it and I want it bad.  I’m 200% for high speed rail.  I’m sick of driving from Des Moines to Chicago.  The Amtrak took an ENTIRE day to get from Osceola to Chicago.  I currently live in Europe and it’s amazing to not need a car.  Public transportation is ON TIME, efficient, and will take you anywhere.  There is no reason railway shouldn’t be the way of the future in the U.S.  The big obstacle will be that our nation is based on the highway system (thank you Eisenhower for that!) and it will cost money and possibly require the government to purchase farmland to build.  The benefits outweigh the costs, though.  If Obama can accomplish this, it will be his hallmark.  

    They need more money though!  $50billion would seal the deal.

  • Amtrak

    Last summer we took Amtrak round trip from Creston to Chicago.  The time of travel was very comparable to car travel.  The price was higher than just buying the gas but the trip is economical when you figure mileage on your vehicle.

    A couple of years ago my spouse and I took Amtrak back from Seattle to Minneapolis.  We enjoy traveling on Amtrak.  The food ain’t bad.  Its airline food.  But is a dining experience.  At dinner you get to meet folks from around this nation and world.  A bit of advice.  If you are going to be on Amtrak for more than one day look into a sleeper.

    Amtrak is the only civilized way to travel.  Rather than sit in a small airline seat.  You have a full recyliner to sit in and see this country.  I will be very glad when we get passenger rail built to trains going more often and planes going less.