I'm going to point to this column (and your others regarding Amtrak) when I'm challenged about my opposition to big progressive government plans. The lack of accountability and outright waste, graft and embedded self-interest that infects Amtrak (and the MTA, LIRR, etc) is a huge impediment to progressive politics. It isn't enough that money is spent; it must be spent wisely and managed well.

I've long thought that if progressive energy were not directed toward the next great program (Green New Deal, etc), but on making the trains run on time, ensuring the streets in SF, Chi, Baltimore, Detroit, etc... are clean and safe and making social services in those areas efficient and well-targeted, then larger federal programs would be easier to sell. Heck, as a conservative I might even change my mind about some of those proposals. But the dysfunction seen in those cities and in Amtrak bring me back to the opposition.

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Bigger picture observation- the US spends or wastes an extraordinary amount of money on a lot of stuff (healthcare, infrastructure, defense spending, college education, etc.) precisely because it's so wealthy. When they're writing the obituary for the American empire in the 25th century, they're going to note that being the richest country in the world is actually kind of a curse! That money just sloshes around and fills every space where it's not really blocked, like water overcoming an obstacle. We're wealthier but also everything's more expensive here, so it kind of evens out.

Alon has observed that one of the reasons US subways are so expensive is that we build larger, grander stations than necessary. Lots of people have noted that college education has become more expensive because colleges now offer way more amenities than a generation ago, and also have an extra layer of bureaucratic administrators. Our wealth is funneled into these kind of expenses. This is totally true for defense spending as well- perhaps the most important issue of all, as we come up on the next great conflict.

Sometimes you hear that the US has the weakest social welfare net of any developed country. But actually we spend absolutely enormous sums on social welfare- lots of people don't know, for instance, that we spend as much on healthcare for the elderly as we do our famously huge defense budget! It's just that everything is more expensive here..... https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/2021-04/57170-budget-infographic.pdf?fbclid=IwAR16kADtDpY2sw-AZZ5sBbZo_fLEDJlkqaaufPdM8XqPK4U1z6E4ozDXTvo

In general I don't see anything short of an economic collapse driving down how much we spend on trains, or bridges, or colleges, or aircraft carriers, or anything else. There's just no concentrated will to do so. Scott Alexander wrote Considerations On Cost Disease years ago, and I think it's one of the most underrated causes of American decline. It infects almost every level of society, and I don't see even a mild cure in sight, short of the next Great Depression https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/02/09/considerations-on-cost-disease/

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I live in Vietnam and admittedly it is a developing country without a deep bench of talent in many areas but what is notable is how often infrastructure projects are very willing to invite in foreign expertise. This area over here was developed by a Taiwanese firm. This big building was done by a Singaporean/Australian joint venture.

Directly relevant: Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and both building their first metro system. Hanoi has brought in Chinese infrastructure specialists to run things. Ho Chi Minh City has brought in Japanese infrastructure specialists to run things. It is hard to imagine America ever being willing to do that.

I should note that it is hardly a panacea. Both projects are years behind schedule and billions over budget, despite their heavy reliance on foreign experts.

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The pessimism in the comments is startling. Seems like very few of us (including the author) think that anything approaching these reforms will ever happen. The USA continues to be a contradiction: it is a global empire with the constitution of an agrarian republic.

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> Bipartisan Immigration Framework

Perhaps an interesting Freudian slip since Matt wants to bring in a foreigner to do this job. :)

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Two takeaways:

1. Literally nobody involved in Amtrak gives a shit about outcomes.

2. Maybe Kamala or Pete Buttigieg can single-handedly reform Amtrak so they will institutionally, top-to-bottom, start caring about outcomes.

Well.... good luck?

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Boston to Washington in 3:30 is only a bit less delusional than drawing lines on a map from Kansas City to Denver.

The rural stretches of the NEC, especially South of NYC, are already pretty fast. Speeds could be increased by upgrading the catenaries and straightening a couple turns. These stretches now have an average speed of about 125. There are about 150 miles of “rural” track between NYC and DC. Upgrading this to an average speed of 180mph would knock 23 minutes off the time.

The route through New England hugs the coast and slows down for all the Midsized towns— New London, New Haven, Providence. To upgrade speeds, you’d probably want to build a new line further inland and simply bypass these towns. That would be politically difficult. You might save 24 minutes by bypassing greater New London with a 180mph line. Bypassing Providence would save 6 minutes more.

All of the above changes, plus reducing NYC dwell times, would still leave DC-Boston over 5 hours and 30 minutes.

To go lower, you would have to eliminate the slow stretches in Baltimore, Philly and Wilmington and offer through trains. This would mean increasing the radius of curves in urban areas, which would mean tearing down hundreds of developed blocks or tunneling. You might save 15 additional minutes if you built tunnels under each of these cities, or a Wilimingtin bypass. That leaves the time at 5:15. The stretch coming out of DC isn’t that worth improving because the train needs several miles to accelerate. To go under 5:15, you have to radically improve the situation in NYC, and that would break the bank.


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"That’s about $40 million per kilometer of distance. In Spain they’ve built high-speed rail for an average of $21 million per km, and in France it’s $30 million. "

That's very nice for Spain and France, but I think it has been established pretty soundly that for whatever reasons here in the US similar big infrastructure projects are prohibitively expensive. In all the discussion about California's disastrous high speed rail project, the incurious stenographers of the media almost never show any interest in understanding why the French can spiderweb their country with high speed rail and Americans can't run a line between LA and San Jose through mostly empty countryside.

Until we have a thorough and honest national discussion of why that is so, we really ought to forget about similarly ambitious infrastructure projects in this country.

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New Yorker who lives in DC bullish about Amtrak! News at 11!

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I guess I'm wondering if the governance structure of Amtrak is set up in a way that causes dysfunction, bad incentives, etc. This piece seems to suggest that the structure isn't the issue but we just keep on picking the wrong guys, which is possible but gets my skeptical spidey sense tingling.

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Whether you are a conservative or liberal, you should want things to work

Three cheers for effective management!

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As a Californian I naturally think about our HSR project anytime rail comes up - and this reminds me of how much I kept thinking about it listening to the power transmission episode of The Weeds the other day. A good idea, hampered by a patchwork of local permission, landowner, regulation, & local grudges.

I don't know. I generally think environmental regulation eg, is a good idea- but we've got to figure out a way to speed up big projects or we'll environmental regulation ourselves into full on climate change.

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Goodness ... so much of this is just disconnected from reality.

D.C. to Boston in 3:30?? How? Like seriously? That's 430 miles + two major class A metros. It took Deutsche Bahn twenty-five years, 10B euro, and a tremendous amount of controversy to shave two hours off the Munich to Berlin route; finally getting it get down to four hours ... and that's just 390 miles and far less inter-city congestion.

The typical response here is ... "well, Germany doesn't know what they're doing either". And my response is ... "well, that's not how benchmarking works". You don't go from worst to first without building differentiated capabilities. You can't just wave a magic wand.


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Thank you for a great article. We live in suburban DC and before Covid had begun taking Amtrak to Boston to visit friends and family there and on Cape Cod. A whole lot easier and safer, even if riding the bus to CC to and from Boston adds a couple three hours to the trip there. (To and from Boston is about the same time as driving.) We also use Autotrain to go to FL. So it's fair to say we love and use Amtrak. But Compared to French and German trains, it's laughable. A TGV from DC to Boston would be a huge improvement, but so would simply fixing the roadbed so that the ride isn't as bouncy as a amusement park ride. Bring on them furriners!

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As in so many areas, the United States approach to passenger rail suffers from the "not invented here" syndrome. American society's resistance to adopting foreign best practices may quite literally be the death of us. Perhaps this is an overhang from our past-WWII imperial glory.

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To be fair, Amtrak is just the vehicle for Federal investment in the Gateway project, which is nationally essential because of the consequences of losing the existing, decrepit Hudson River tunnels. So they never really had $30 billion for a high-speed NEC in the first place.

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