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A high-speed train of thought

There’s been a lot of talk recently about bailing out the American auto industry, and both sides of the argument have valid claims to support their positions. On the one hand, GM, Ford and Chrysler employ thousands of people who would lose their jobs should those companies fail. On the other hand, American cars aren’t very good and cost too much, and the American auto industry is likely to go bankrupt even if it does get bailed out.

With that in mind I’d like to propose a solution that would be in everyone’s best interest: Take the money for the bailout and use it to build a network of high-speed magnetic levitation (maglev) trains.

By now I imagine you’ve heard about high-speed trains. They’ve been in operation in Japan and Germany for years now, and even China and South Korea have them. But what should really be galling to you as an American is the fact that France has a high-speed train system, and here in the United States we have Amtrak.

France’s train, the train à grande vitesse (translation: train of big speed), better known as the TGV, holds the record for a wheeled train, having reached 357 miles per hour on a test track, and it travels at up to 200 miles per hour in commercial use. By contrast, Amtrak’s speediest train, the Acela, tops out at 150 miles per hour and averages about 86.

Maglev trains, which should be the preferred option for a new American rail system, are even better than the TGV. A Japanese maglev holds the record for all trains, having achieved a speed of 361 miles per hour, and maglev trains are safer than their wheeled cousins, as they wrap around the tracks beneath them, making it next to impossible for them to derail. They’re also non-polluting, and they travel on a cushion of air, making for a smooth ride.

A group in San Diego has been working on bringing a maglev train to the U.S., and they see it as a practical solution for travel in America’s urban corridors, but that’s being a little short-sighted. I think we should commit to building a nationwide maglev train system to give travelers an alternative to flying.

Unfortunately, there’s one problem with my plan: Since maglev trains can’t travel on existing railroad tracks, we would have to start from scratch and build all the lines. Obviously, that comes with a hefty price tag. How much? Well, right now it would be about $40 million per mile.

OK, OK, I admit that sounds like a lot of money, but let’s weigh that against the new standard of $700 billion. For that kind of money, we could have 17,500 miles of track. Would that be worth it? I think so.

First of all, President-elect Obama has promised to create 2.5 million new jobs. What he hasn’t said is how he plans to do that. Putting people to work across the country building a maglev system would help immensely in achieving that goal, and it would more than make up for the jobs that will be lost if the auto industry goes belly up.

Secondly, America hasn’t had a massive public works project since the interstate highway system was built. Anyone who has tried to drive around countries with inferior highways would agree that the interstates were a great success and something for Americans to take pride in. I imagine a new state-of-the-art train system would be, too.

Third, a reliable system of non-polluting trains could conceivably get thousands of cars off the road, reducing the output of greenhouse gases and making us less reliant on foreign oil supplies.

Fourth, riding a train across the country instead of flying over it would go a long way toward making us feel like one nation, indivisible again. Right now the Midwest is “flyover country,” and the people there rightfully feel disconnected from the people on the coasts. Maybe getting out there and actually seeing the amber waves of grain would give city slickers a better appreciation for where their food comes from.

But the most important reason for building a maglev train system is because everything about air travel sucks. Wouldn’t you like to board a train in Denver in the evening, have a nice dinner in the dining car and a couple of drinks in the bar car, then go to bed and wake up in New York? I know I would. Let’s give it some more thought before we blindly throw money at the automakers.

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Todd Hartley

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11 2008

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