Railroaded

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The campaign policy blogging starts now: apparently, McCain wants to shut down Amtrak. Liberals are predictibly (and understandably) outraged. I'm not sure, however, that this is such a terrible idea, even environmentally. The lines that actually run at a profit--those in the Virginia-Massachussetts corridor--would still be profitable, and presumably operated by some private company. The other lines are a mixed bag, environmentally; it isn't really good for the environment to run trains at low capacity. And the federal government, because of the EIS process, other procedural barriers, and a great deal of logrolling, has so far not succeeded in making sensible upgrades to the system. The Acela was announced in 1994, actually went live six years later despite the really rather minor infrastructure improvements required, and at lavish expense now gets passengers to Boston one half-hour quicker in slightly comfier seats.

Moreover, if oil prices stay high, the math changes substantially for passenger rail, making new routes more profitable. People will probably never take the train en masse from New York to Los Angeles, but a direct train from New York to Chicago could start looking good, particularly when you factor in the drive to out-of-the way airports, delays, and time spent removing your shoes in security lines.

America's freight rail system, while it needs a lot of work, is world-class. Its passenger rail should be too. But it's so far proven pretty much impossible for the government to make it that way--and not merely because we don't have enough liberal politicians who like rail. Most politicians like rail. But they like a lot of other things better, like getting re-elected.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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