How to put the US back on the rails and why Canada has been on a military spending spree.
What happens to a country when its passenger train system is bordering on collapse, haemorrhaging cash, delivering dramatically unreliable service and has erased all the magic from train travel?
Amtrak is a disaster, with the Bush administration practically derailing the trains by restricting federal funding. Plus the trains are held hostage daily by unreliable signaling and badly maintained tracks owned by freight companies with their own priorities.
It’s unlikely, given the current system that Amtrak can be saved. But, with some of the most scenic train routes in the world and so many airlines offering little or no service, a rail renaissance in the US could happen with private funding, bypassing Washington, negotiating deals to buy or rent rail track from one of the six companies who operate it and building a mix of high-speed and hub networks.
New Mexico’s Governor Richardson has proved that it can be done. His Rail Runner Express – a commuter-rail initiative that launched three months ago – runs on 270 miles (435km) of track that New Mexico bought from Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway. The investment, which included equipment, stations and maintenance of the line cost over $400m (€300m).
Chris Blewett, project manager for the Rail Runner, says, “It would be smart to start buying track across the country. After all, Amtrak’s system runs on other people’s tracks and they are completely at the mercy of freight rail companies.”
Monocle sees an opportunity for an efficient luxury commuter train service that would encourage people off interstates and also compete with airlines on shorter routes. For longer hauls, overnight services with all mod-cons (wi-fi printers, reliable phone links) could cut hotel bills and 04.00 wake-up calls between Washington and Atlanta or NYC and Chicago. Punctuality is the next challenge. Switzerland’s SBB or Japan’s JR might want to offer this in the form of special foreign aid.
Monocle’s top five railway companies:
SJ of Sweden’s X2000 line between Stockholm and Gothenburg with its seamless, free wi-fi network.
SBB of Switzerland’s plan for a network upgrade to wi-fi to go with its nationwide station overhaul.
Japan for its outstanding on-time rail performance and for showing that many operators can deliver great service.
Taiwan for turning its new Shinkansen line into a business magnet.
Deutsche Bahn’s aggressive product offer to compete with airlines.
With more than 2,500 soldiers serving in Afghanistan and smaller contingents in the Balkans, the Sinai and Sudan, Canada has a higher military profile than at any time since the Korean war. Last year the Department of National Defence’s budget was $14.68bn (€9.5bn), a $1.1bn (€700m) increase over previous years. Given the increasing strategic importance of the north (shipping lanes that will be open year round due to the global thaw), Canada might soon have little choice but to loosen its purse strings even more – annually.
Canada’s air force has announced deals for aircraft with Boeing and Lockheed Martin, while the army has been purchasing precision munitions and howitzers from the US Department of Defense. The only significant purchase coming from outside the US/Canada is for unmanned aerial vehicles for use in Afghanistan from French company Sagem. Canada should also start watching systems being developed in the Nordic region. These countries are climactically similar to Canada and also punch above their weight in global peacekeeping operations.