Trains So Fast They'll Make Mama Proud

Jeffrey Barg's picture

To hear my mother tell it, I gave Joe Biden the idea for high-speed rail. Charitable and glowing, yes, but isn't that what mothers are for? 

All the same, I can't help but glow a bit anyway when I think about how far we've come as a country in embracing high-speed rail. 

When we last spoke, I was telling you about my second-year planning studio that was working on making the case for high-speed rail in the Northeast. In the intervening months, we presented our finished product to representatives at the Department of Transportation and the Federal Rail Administration, and then later to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. The governor-impressed with our plans and flush with pride for his fellow Penn grads-arranged for us to show our work to the vice president, and in turn, to the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission. Just a few weeks ago, Rendell entered our plan into the official congressional record at a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. And yesterday, Amtrak Joe was back at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station with a landmark announcement: $53 billion for high-speed rail over the next six years. 

It's been a pretty good year. 

Especially when you consider that, two years ago, no one was even talking about high-speed rail. 

Now these conversations are happening not just in planning schools and on transportation blogs (like Planetizen's own Railist), but around water coolers and on the 5 o'clock news. (Hello, Fox 29 Philadelphia!) Some like to try to make hay from the left vs. right split, but the truth is that the two sides have never been closer on the issue. Florida Congressman John Mica, who heads up the House Transportation Committee, made lots of headlines with his quote yesterday that the White House plan was like "giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio." But read a little deeper into what he said and where he stands: Far from being against high-speed rail, Mica and other Republicans are actually quite for it-they just think we should concentrate all of our efforts on getting high-speed rail in the Northeast up and running first

So in two years, we've gone from not talking about high-speed rail at all to fighting over who gets it first? Try naming a single other issue that's moved that far that fast.

We could thank the Chinese, who are building high-speed lines as fast as a little kid with Brios, for giving us something to compete against. We could thank the president, who's tirelessly beat the HSR drum while Joe the Biden literally drives the Acela up and down the Northeast Corridor. We could thank Amtrak, whose own high-speed rail plan last year showed another impressive alignment that the trains could take in the Northeast. 

Whoever gets the credit-and everyone deserves a piece of it-we should most of all be thankful that the winds are pushing toward a train system that will revolutionize how our businesses and manufacturing centers compete internationally; that will cause a paradigm shift in how we conceptualize regions and megaregions, and rethink our sense of place; that will produce exponential environmental benefits as we alleviate congestion and increase worker productivity by taking millions of drivers and fliers and putting them on two tracks.

Mom would be proud. 

Jeffrey Barg is an urban planner at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He can be reached at



Jeffrey Barg's picture

"Our finished product"

It's come to my attention that the above link to download our report is temporarily down. It should be fixed soon, but in the meantime, the entire report is available for download here.

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