By request: why does rail suck?

Reader Aaron asks:

How about, given that flying is much more direct, is rail still more efficient? Cost effective?

Once, I looked into taking the train from Detroit to NYC. The price was higher than the plane ticked, it required several changes, and would have required an extra day off of work.

Well, our rail doesn't have to be the way it is. At current fuel prices, my father--who is my go to guy on transportation issues--estimates that any journey of under 500 miles is probably more cost effective by rail. A high speed train like the TGV to Chicago could make the trip from New York in under six hours, at which point it probably becomes efficient.

I am about to blame--you will perhaps be unsurprised--the government. Why isn't there a high speed train from New York to Chicago? Well, first of all, this would greatly anger legislators from New York and Michigan, who like the fact that the Chicago train must pass through Buffalo and Detroit, even if this assures that almost no one with a job will actually use it.

There's also the problem of the Federal construction process. The high speed train between DC and Charlotte was first conceived in the early 1990s. The EIS for this project will be completed probably sometime in 2010. Then we have to get final legislative authority. Then we have to put out the project for bids. By the time the thing is actually built, we'll probably all have evolved an extra leg and be able to run faster than the high speed train.

There are budding private rail initiatives--rumor has it that one of the freight companies that Amtrak runs on is considering taking back the passenger service on that route, because Amtrak is such a scheduling disaster that it's costing them huge amounts of money. But Amtrak can't be even partially privatised, because then who would run trains from New York through Buffalo and Detroit to Chicago in a speedy eighteen hours? Or half-empty tourist trains through Montana?

Half-empty trains are not environmentally efficient; they are pork. American rail needs a combination of higher carbon taxes to price in the mobile transport externalities, and a government that isn't determined to mess things up. I'm skeptical that we'll get either any time soon.