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Downtown View: Slow Trains

When our Scottish machetunim* moved to America a couple of decades ago, they said they were shocked at the backwardness of this county’s technology. After a recent trip on the Acela between Boston and New York, I decided little has changed since they first encountered what passes for up-to-date America.

Not that the trip wasn’t pleasant. Get on at South Station, enjoy a beautiful three-and-a-half-hour ride along the coast with plenty of room for your laptop, novel or newspapers, and the lunch you’ve prepared for this trip. Arrive in the middle of New York City, ready to hop on the subway or take a cab and speed toward your destination. You’ve done all this on the most environmentally sensitive way to travel.

We weren’t the only passengers choosing to ride the train. In 2012, Amtrak says its trains carried more riders between New York and Boston than all airlines combined. No wonder. By the time you travel to the airport, wait in line for tickets and security, cool your heels at the gate, board and wait for everyone to get settled, endure the flight, retrieve your luggage, wait for a taxi and wait in traffic on the way to the city, you’ve spent more time in more discomfort by taking a plane.

But the train’s popularity is one of its problems. Every car is packed, with kids who get on at New Haven sometimes sitting in the aisles on their suitcases.

Another problem is the time it takes to travel the 200 or so- mile route. A train between Paris and Lyon—about 289 miles—takes less than two hours, even though France is not exactly a technological powerhouse.

It’s embarrassing to have to suffer our machetumin’s scorn. It’s time-wasting to take the comfortable train when if one were traveling in Asia or and Europe, you’d be there faster. It’s depressing to our American economy not to have better and faster trains. And without fast, cross-country trains, airline terminals, runways and routes are too crowded for safety and comfort, not to mention the roads.

I have no solutions, so I called Mike Dukakis, who does.

He lamented the situation as much as I did. “The world has gone right by us,” he said. He explained that the right of way, catenary system (overhead electrical structure) and rails Amtrak inherited from private railroads when the company was formed by an act of Congress in the early 1970s was “junk.” Upgrading them to carry the Acela at the clip it now achieves has been expensive. For greater speed, the right of way needs to be upgraded in some places to two fast tracks and two regional tracks so commuter trains don’t share the rails and slow down the fast trains. Outside the Northeast Corridor that runs from Boston to Washington, passenger trains share tracks with freight trains, slowing everyone down.

Upgrading Amtrak would cost about the same as five months in Iraq, said Dukakis. The new aircraft carrier that has had so many problems costs more than $11 billion. We don’t need 837 military bases in 150 countries, he said. “It’s not as if there aren’t resources,” he said.

It’s not just a fasr train to New York that is important to Massachusetts’ economy. What if you could avoid the Mass Pike to get to Worcester, Springfield or Hartford? What if that old vision—the north-south rail link—came to pass. “You wouldn’t have to expand South Station if you did that,” he said, “even if they do name the station for me.”

Congress has budgeted no money for high-speed rail this coming year, because many Republican congress-people are hostile to Amtrak, he said. “We’d need $10 billion a year on an annual basis to get [good rail] for the whole country,” he said.

One would think if funding Amtrak kept the liberal hoi-polloi off the roads so the car-infatuated could drive their SUVs in less traffic, they’d want to fund it, but that’s me talking, not Dukakis.

Remarkably, Amtrak makes money. Remarkably, Los Angeles is building a rail system, and there is already a train from San Diego up the coast that riders have declared preferable to driving or a plane. Remarkably, we already re-instituted a train that whizzes to Hyannis while cars sit in a five-hour backup.

Think how many cars could be taken off I-93 if there were a train between Boston, New Hampshire cities and the ski areas, as there was in the late 1800s.

Think how nice it would be if we could get to Montreal by train in a couple of hours.

All this creates jobs, builds the economy, improves air quality and makes people’s lives more convenient. What nincompoop wouldn’t want such a system. Apparently there are many.

If it happened, my daughter’s parents-in-law* might not be so scornful of their temporary country.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at

One Reply to “Downtown View: Slow Trains

  1. Even if the money would magically fall from the sky you will still spend years dealing with the useless EPA and ecoterrorist opposition.

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