dinah won’t you blow


The Obama Administration unveiled its high-speed rail plan today, which was met mostly with “why didn’t we do this thirty years ago like all other industrialized nations?” It’s meant to buttress and/or replace the sad-sack Amtrak trains that are notorious for two things: being expensive and smelling like urine.

So we could see the scope of the project, the Administration gave us this map of once and future projects:

Now, I’m a huge fan of high-speed rail, and it looks like there will not only a superfast way to get upstate from New York City, but also North Carolina to New Orleans as well. This plan would rewrite American travel, and I can’t wait. However, despite the title “Vision for High Speed Rail in America”, the map is oddly lacking in, well, vision.


First off, can someone please tell me the inspiration in connecting Little Rock, Arkansas to Texarkana with a magnetic levitation bullet train? Is there something I don’t know about these two towns? I’ve actually done that drive twice, and heard no legends about secret treasure, breathtaking canyons or wild gazelle.

Here’s the thing: not to be a snob, but there is one high-speed train that would capture the imagination of all Americans – even the ones who bristle at the inexorable influence of both coasts – and when rendered in yellow, it looks like this:


The Great American West, the allure of travel, the excitement of America’s promise was not achieved when they connected Cleveland to Akron – it happened when they connected the coasts. As soon as that golden spike was pounded in 1869 at Promontory, Utah, our country was forever bound and we were off to the races.

The new Transcontinental Railroad would connect New York to Los Angeles via Chicago – basically a mashup of I-40 and I-80. All other routes would spine off that one, connecting all of us at 300 miles per hour. Think of it: leave NYC at 8am, none of the cramping of airlineers, free to walk about as you choose, free to sleep (in a bed), eat, read, anything you want. Arrive at Union Station in LA at 10pm. LOVE IT!

0 thoughts on “dinah won’t you blow

  1. kent

    One of my most vivid memories of being very small is riding the train from LA to Utah. I think I must have been 4 years old, and the thing I remember most was a black Pullman Porter, who may have been the first black man I ever saw up close. He was (to me) HUGE, and very impressive.
    I would love to take Amtrak but it’s more expensive than it is to fly. What’s up with that?

  2. CM

    Amtrak trains aren’t so urine-smelling. (SEPTA in Philly is, though)…sleeper cars are da bomb. Expensive, but a great trip.

  3. Caitlin

    Another great idea from Obama. It’s so nice to open the paper each morning (OK, wake up my sleeping MacBook each morning) and see: Ledbetter act passed, global gag rule overturned, Guatanamo to close, high speed rail plan introduced… It’s lovely to have finally won.

  4. Kevin In Philadelphia

    Septa is tough, no doubt about that. The cleanliness and timeliness are fair and getting better, but the operating hours are ridiculous. Philadelphia is a top 10 city in this country, packed with museums, libraries, universities, restaurants, theaters, historical landmarks…Independence Hall and the Constitution, for chris’sake. Why do trains, subways, regional rails, and buses stop running at 11:35 PM?!?

  5. Claverack Weekender

    They took the existing Amtrak map, put some lipstick on it, and brought it to the party. If you read the 40 page strategic plan there isn’t much meat there. I would love to believe this plan will go somewhere, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up…

  6. Piglet

    I think that Arkansas stretch is just there as part of the longer line linking Dallas with St. Louis and Chicago.
    Either that or a Senator from Arkansas chairs the transportation subcommittee, or the Clintons are cashing in a favor or something. I know that Oregon’s Representative DeFazio chairs the House transportation committee, which is why the Northwest line goes from Canada to Eugene instead of stopping at Portland.
    Is the western part of your yellow line completely random? It looks like it just misses Phoenix, Albuquerque and Denver, when hitting as many big cities as possible would make the most sense. Alternatively, the existing grey line connecting San Francisco Bay with Chicago, and then Chicago with NYC, fills the same “from sea to shining sea” goal.

  7. Ehren

    I love train travel. I love to drive, but I live in NYC in part because I love walking, public transit and not owning a car even more. I lived in England for a couple of years and wish that our country was set up like that (dense towns surrounded by empty fields and farms, with trains linking everything up efficiently).
    However, I’m not sold on this use of money. The US has been too spread out to make passenger rail realistic in most places, either in terms of time or money. People live too far apart, even in the vast interstate suburbs. I can see how this could create jobs and concentrate populations over the long term, in the same way the WPA highways project created jobs and spread populations out. But I guess I’m not sure it will work. I guess 300mph would do it, as long as it was competitively-priced.
    As for the network he chose, I assume it’s a bang-for-buck sort of calculus. Which rail networks would take less to upgrade, where are people already using rail travel, where are they likely to use it, where are people concentrated, etc. Your plan would be a grand gesture, but I’m guessing that this plan, like our president, is eminently practical and focused on helping the greatest number with the fewest dollars.

  8. Paul G

    This gon’ be incredible.
    Disneyland to Vegas is still going on, too, right?
    P.S. Squirrel Nut Zippers at the El Rey on April 20th.

  9. kjf

    I used to work for Amtrak (and Union Pacific) and one of the problems with any long distance travel on Amtrak is that it does not (with some exceptions) own the track that it travels on. When it uses the track owned by the freights the passenger cars can just sit for hours as they are second to the freights. The on time arrivals for those trains are comical. People don’t want to pay a ton of money to get somewhere and then get there days later!
    As for the cost of rail travel – the labor costs in the rail industry are very high – for a variety of reasons. Add to that they do not have workers comp but instead use a fault based system (FELA) that is very expensive – and the cases are vigorously litigated. (The union employees are paid rather well if you commpare it to other similar industries.)
    Rail travel is awesome – I’m just not sure I am going to be around to see it happen here.


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