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Derailing progress the American way

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted November 5, 2001

The other day I was chatting with the Los Angeles Times' very able new transportation reporter. We were discussing the stark contrast between government rail passenger policies in Europe with those of the United States. I pointed out that when France determined that it would be in her best interest to build new high-speed rail passenger corridors in the 300 to 500 mile range, she simply plowed ahead. Don't get me wrong. Hearings were held and local suggestions were taken into consideration. Yet all of that was disposed of in short order and construction was underway in a matter of months. That is the opposite of what happens in the good old USA. Here the process takes years, and it is open for endless revision and reconsideration.

I thought of this conversation because the writer had asked me about the corridor between Los Angeles and San Francisco. That corridor would seem to be ideal for consideration of high-speed rail. It is about the same length as most of those in France, Germany, Sweden and now even Russia.

I invite you to consider what is going on in the Bay Area over just one branch line of BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, launched in the early 1970s with great fanfare. It has been carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers since all its major trunk lines were opened. Now ridership has grown greatly, because traffic congestion is increasing and the BART system itself is expanding.

Guess what? Last year, in the BART airport extension construction zone, one of the vehicles there killed something called the San Francisco garter snake. San Francisco officials may not take human life very seriously but kill a snake and you are, by golly, in for big time trouble. Construction work was shut down for 18 days. Even now, after an exhaustive investigation, no one could be sure who did the dastardly deed. So, BART's board of directors finally had to agree to ante up over $1 million just to cover the contractor's cost for lost time and shut-down equipment. The branch is in the ten-mile range give or take a few.

Now one can only imagine what the situation would be like if a 450 plus mile line were under construction. There would be lawsuits every other Tuesday being filed in this local court, appealed to that state court, back to whatever federal court, challenging every sort of environmentalist issue and protection of wildlife question. In short, a new high-speed rail line would offer a fantastic array of opportunities for so called public interest attorneys.

A high-speed train on the way from Nice to Bruxelles
A high-speed train on the way from Nice to Bruxelles

There are no such groups operating in such free wheeling fashion in Europe as there are today in America. Most Americans have no clue that when various governments made the decisions to construct brand new rights of way, they just essentially plowed ahead. Had the United States, operating under today's legal system, determined at the same time as Japan that it wanted to build the famous high-speed train lines that Japan started operating in the 1960s, our lines would not be built to this day. We would still be wrangling in the courts over 35 years later, with some portion or another of the system still held up by the ultra-preservationists.

Abroad, the left says the USA is an extremist nation. We are extremist, all right. But it is not the way the left has in mind. We are extremist in the way we allow people who do not wish the nation well to just use our legal system to serve their ends.

The one so-called "high-speed corridor" we have launched, the Northeast Corridor (Washington-New York-Boston), has been hung together with track and electric infrastructure dating anywhere from 1907 to 1932 to 2000. The brand new Amtrak trains, capable of running at 150 mph, can't operate at that speed, because they would rip up large portions of the infrastructure. So they are not able to take advantage of the incredible opportunity the events of September 11th provided Amtrak.

We have no new high-speed train corridor worthy of the name. We cannot construct such a corridor because we don't have the political will to build it. The only people who want to take this on are out of work lawyers. Forget it. It won't happen unless we change our form of government and if we do it will be without the consent of the governed. At the end of the day, will it be worth it?

Paul M. Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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