Everyone who’s ever traveled to Europe, China, or Japan, comes back freaking about all the trains we don’t have. Amtrak trains are slow, unreliable, and, weirdly enough more expensive. In fact, they’re so bad, Amtrak’s own CEO cries about it. And it’s no one’s fault but our own.

Mostly, because we keep electing officials that have no problem gutting the system, intentionally sabotaging it, or setting up to fail. But a sweeping new report from National Journal details just how bad the problems are, and the rough estimates of what we’d need to fix it. And Amtrak CEO Joseph H. Boardman sounds like he’s at his wits end:

Boardman and I have been discussing the unfortunate fact that 45 years since its inception, the company he oversees remains a poorly funded, largely neglected ward of the state, unable to fully control its own finances or make its own decisions. I ask him, “Is this a frustrating job?”

“I guess it could be, and there are times it is,” he says. “No question about that. But—” His voice begins to catch. “Sixty-six years old, I’ve spent my life doing this. I talked to my 80-year-old aunt this weekend, who said, ‘Joe, just keep working.’ Because I think about retirement.” Boardman is a Republican who formerly ran the Federal Railroad Administration and was New York state’s transportation commissioner; he has a bushy white mustache and an aw-shucks smile. “We’ve done good things,” he continues. “We haven’t done everything right, and I don’t make all of the right decisions, and, yes, I get frustrated. But you have to stay up.” A tear crawls down his left cheek.

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Poor guy. But while it might be easy to just blame Amtrak’s CEO for its problems, and not feel one iota of sympathy for what should be his own responsibility, much of it is out of his hands. And, weirdly enough, while Amtrak’s problems only seem to have compounded, ridership has shot through the roof, increasing by about 50% over the past 15 years.

We still don’t, however, have any true high speed rail. We still don’t have stations serving as gleaming temples to transportation. We still don’t have trains soaking up the excess travel needs of the United States, so that people can truly enjoy roads rather than just sitting in traffic.

But it’s not just the government to blame, or the private sector with all its lobbying dollars. It’s everyone, really:

In November 2011, Robert Dove, a managing director at the Carlyle Group, the D.C.-based asset-management firm, delivered a presentation to the annual meeting of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR), a lobbying-cum-cheerleading group formed shortly after Obama’s election. Dove began his slide show with the usual embarrassing stats about America’s high-speed-rail ineptitude (290 million annual high-speed-rail passengers in Japan; 3 million in America). He went on to estimate that for the Northeast Corridor alone to facilitate legitimate bullet-train travel, up to $117 billion in improvements were necessary. (Amtrak itself, in a 2012 plan that will probably never come to fruition—New York to Boston in 94 minutes!—put the number at $151 billion.) “You will not find the private sector willing to come in at the construction stage or the development stage,” he warned. For that, the government would have to pick up the tab. Only at that point would you “find people like me very, very willing to come in and buy it.” In other words, to get to the conservative dream of a privatized Amtrak, you would first have to pursue the liberal path of spending a massive amount of public money.

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In short, it’s going to cost a lot of money. But it’s a necessary amount of money.

Go read Simon Van Zuylen-Wood’s whole report over at National Journal. It’s scary, eye-opening, and also very, very necessary.

Photo credit: Loco Steve


Contact the author at ballaban@jalopnik.com.

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