Why the Stimulus Should Have Been Called Rebuilding: U.S. Falling Behind in Trains and Internet

I realize that much of the political establishment, particular on the right, has adopted the Peter Pan philosophy of public policy: anything's possible, if you wish hard enough. Consequently, too many Americans think that our infrastructure is not only fine, but the best in the world. This, I think, has made it much harder to convince people to support the stimulus package--which should have been called a rebuilding package. But two news items underscore how the pie-in-the-sky way of thinking isn't sufficient for rebuilding a nation. On the internet front:

The report by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) said the average download speed in South Korea is 20.4 megabits per second (mbps) -- four times faster than the US average of 5.1 mbps, ranked 28th.

Japan trails South Korea with an average of 15.8 mbps followed by Sweden at 12.8 mbps and the Netherlands at 11.0 mbps, the report said.

It said tests conducted by speedmatters.org found the average US download speed had improved by only nine-tenths of a megabit per second between 2008 and 2009 -- from 4.2 mbps to 5.1 mbps.

"The US has not made significant improvement in the speeds at which residents connect to the Internet," the report said. "Our nation continues to fall far behind other countries."

Just think what this is doing to the porn industry. With a policy not based primarily around providing maximal, monosopy (or flat out monopoly) profits to internet (bad) service providers, we could actually do things like use regulation to force higher bandspeeds. TEH SOCIALISMZ!! But this article about the U.S.'s backwardness regarding high speed rail will really raise your self-esteem (italics mine):

This December, high-speed trains designed by the German conglomerate and adapted for Russian winters will ply the rails between St. Petersburg and Moscow. But Siemens hopes their final destination will be the last laggard of the high-speed age: the United States.

For years, businesspeople and politicians have dreamed about America entering the high-speed era, but Amtrak has been plagued by budget and service problems and the closest Americans have come to high speed is the Acela, which rarely runs at what Europeans call high speed.

Now Siemens and its competitors are hoping all that has changed. The economic stimulus passed by Congress in April includes a five-year, $13 billion high-speed rail program. Siemens is one of four makers of high-speed trains, none of them based in the United States, that hopes to take advantage of it.

Siemens executives said the tilt toward political acceptance of high-speed rail in the United States presented a remarkable business opportunity -- assuming the systems get built.

The United States "is a developing country in terms of rail," Ansgar Brockmeyer, head of public transit business for Siemens, said in an interview aboard the Russian test train, as wooden country homes and birch forests flickered by outside the window. "We are seeing it as a huge opportunity."

So even if we improve our transportation system, many of the economic benefits from building these trains will be exported out of the U.S. It's like being a colony or something. Again, if we had supported these technologies ten years ago, we would have been in a better place competitively (or more accurately, we might have had a place). Instead, radical deficit reductionists and 'anti-government' idiots saw this as bad policy. As I've noted before, these simplistic catechisms have consequences--the U.S. is falling behind in information and transportation technology. The latter is particularly disturbing, since that had the potential to revitalize our industrial base.

Once again, this just shows how hapless the Democratic Party is. If these initiatives had been framed not just as jobs programs, but as ways to make U.S. great again, they could have thrown the 'patriotic' card back at conservatives (including those within their own party). Imagine harnessing some patriotic fervor towards something that doesn't involve killing people. (Weird, I know).

It would have been good for the country too.

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I do wonder, as regards trains, whether the US might have a higher density of regional airports than other areas, which could possibly contribute to the unpopularity of trains.

That said, I just took a weekend trip via Amtrak, and it was an incredibly pleasurable experience. I showed up close to the marked departure time instead of two hours in advance, nobody made me take off my shoes, I could bring my own damned water instead of begging the flight attendants for some, I could get up and walk around when I needed to stretch my legs (which I didn't have to do as often anyway, because there was tons of legroom to start with), and I had power outlets to plug my laptop into that worked for the entire trip.

And the kicker for me was that not only was the ticket price about the same as flying but it didn't take that much longer. Again, once you factor in having to arrive early at the airport to navigate security, the Acela trip took maybe an hour more than a flight would have, in exchange for which I got a much more pleasurable experience overall.

Maybe that's the problem. If we had high-speed rail like the Europeans and Asians do, the airlines would go out of business.

I showed up close to the marked departure time instead of two hours in advance...

My experience with Amtrak is that you could have shown up two hours late and not been left behind.

I love the idea of moving to train travel. There are a lot of great thing about it, and I would love to do it more. I've experienced some epic air travel delays, but comparing the norms is instructive. As the post says, we're definitely a "developing country" on that front.

Train leaves Tuesday, SHARP!

By Troublesome Frog (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

We could make the biggest improvement in passenger train performance in this country by raising the lowest speeds; and we could do that in a couple of years for very much less money than it would take to build all new high-speed rail infrastructure.

Note also that much of high-speed railâs perceived improvement in endpoint-to-endpoint times actually comes not from the higher top speed, but from making fewer stops.

Iâm an avid Amtrak rider, and Iâd love to see high-speed trains zipping around the country; but while weâre building all this new infrastructure over the next couple of decades, letâs not forget to add a pittance for improving what we already have.

I do wonder, as regards trains, whether the US might have a higher density of regional airports than other areas, which could possibly contribute to the unpopularity of trains.

The US does have an unusual number of cities with multiple airports. In Europe, I can think of three examples of cities with multiple airports that have passenger service (excluding some real stretches by Ryanair): London (LCY, LHR, LGW, STN, LTN), Paris (ORY, CDG), and Stockholm (ARN, Bromma). In all of Asia, I can think of only two: Tokyo (HND, NRT) and Shanghai (SHA, PVD). In the US alone, we have New York (LGA, JFK, EWR), Washington (DCA, IAD, BWI), Chicago (MDW, ORD), San Francisco (SFO, OAK, SJC), Los Angeles (LAX, BUR, LGB, ONT, SNA), Houston (HOU, IAH), Dallas (DAL, DFW), and Miami (MIA, FLL)--and that's just considering the official list of "co-terminal" airports where you can fly into one and leave from another.

But an even bigger factor is how poorly US airports are tied into rail and local subway systems. You can take the Metro to DCA, or BART to SFO, or Amtrak/NJ Transit to EWR, or the El to either Chicago airport, or SEPTA to PHL. For most other airports, either you take a bus from the train station (BOS, BWI, OAK), or you have no rail link at all (this includes LGA). Contrast this with Europe or Japan, where direct links to intercity rail are considered normal for major airports. If you are flying to Lyons via CDG, your connecting "flight" is likely to be a TGV (though I think there are also a few flights that use airplanes). Even more extreme: you cannot book a plane between Zurich and Bern, since SBB is so frequent and efficient that no airline wants to compete. I've been to Bern a few times, and every time I fly into Zurich and take the train (direct from the airport) the rest of the way.

I live within walking distance of an Amtrak station, as does my mother (we are in New Hampshire and Washington state, respectively). If I could take the train directly to Logan Airport, transfer to a nonstop flight to Seattle, and transfer to another train that serves the town my mother lives in (with some assurance that I could make the connections), there would be no reason for me to consider getting there any other way. As it is, I have to drive (or be driven) to the airport on each end.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 06 Oct 2009 #permalink

After conducting some research I have decided that we will take the train from Raleigh, to Orlando, rent a car there and drive to Melbourne, FL. After the analysis there were several compelling reasons.

1. It's cheaper. The cost of driving our car down there (A Honda Pilot) is 0.54 per mile, which comes out to about $700. The round trip train ticket is $392 for both of us. The rental car is about $150. Flying costs over $600 for a round trip at Thanksgiving.

2. It's safer than driving.

3. It's less stressful than driving down I95 at Turkey season.

4. It's greener than driving or flying.

Even though it takes a little longer I think it will still be easier. When you take everything into account, the train becomes more compelling, event at the snails pace in the U.S.

Jim:
â¦I have decided that we will take the train from Raleigh, to Orlando, â¦

Did you look into sleeper fares? Right now, Amtrak is quoting $227 each way for a roomette, $414 for a bedroom southbound, and $583 for a bedroom northbound. (I donât know your datesâ¦I tried 11/25 southbound and 11/27 northbound.) You pay for the room once, then each person in the room pays the lowest applicable coach fare (which might be a bit lower than the coach fares youâre paying now).

A roomette has a pair of facing seats that convert to upper and lower berths at night. Thereâs a wash basin and toilet in the room (not good for folks who are fussy about biological stuff). Thereâs a communal shower down the hall.

A bedroom has a couch that seats three and converts to upper and lower berths at night. The lower berth is about as wide as a regular single bed, so it can sleep two if theyâre cozy. The room has a vanity with a wash basin and your own private, enclosed toilet and shower.

All rooms include meals in the diner. In your case, that would be breakfast southbound, and northbound, maybe a late supper and certainly breakfast.

IIRC (but Iâm not certain), thereâs a first-class waiting area in Raleigh available to anybody with a same-day sleeper ticket, either departing or arriving.

IMO, Amtrak sleeper fares, although quite a bit more than coach, are usually great values (YMMV).

I'm a Brit living quite close to a rail station on the East Coat main line, about 50 miles north of London - which means I can walk out of my front door, sit in comfortable fast trains with civilised amenities like a bar, and be in my favourite restaurant in Paris in just under 4 hours, given favourable Eurostar connection times.

As opposed to an hour's drive to my nearest airport and find a parking space, 2 hours hanging about, plus irritating security checks, a cramped 1 hour 20 min flight with no amenities, another hour from Paris CDG to city centre....

On the other hand, if in less celebratory mood, I can be in Edinburgh in about the same time, and depress myself by listening to the bagpipes.

Fast rail has a lot going for it!