This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Waiting for a Deutsche Bahn bullet train to Amsterdam in Cologne, Germany. Photo by William Dotinga

Last month I sat on an Austrian high-speed train, whizzing past the Alps in plush first-class comfort that cost less than a one-way ticket crammed aboard a Southwest Airlines jet from Sacramento to Burbank would have, and I found myself thinking: If America really is the shining city on a hill, why don’t we have anything that even closely resembles high-speed rail?

Days before, it was a Deutsche Bahn train through the wheat fields of Bavaria. Later, a Trenitalia frecciarossa through vineyards down the spine of Italy. Then a Swiss train from Milan to Geneva, and another from Geneva to Zurich…

You get the point.

A few summers ago, I talked myself out of a 6 ½-hour rail journey from Berlin to Amsterdam on the grounds that it would be a waste of precious vacation time. Wowed by Easyjet’s ridiculously cheap base fare and a 50-minute flight, I opted to fly.

Between the 30-minute taxi ride from Zoo Station in the heart of Berlin to the middle of a field where the city’s Schonefeld airport is, a security line from hell, having to unpack my carry-on and dump the contents into my main suitcase because the carry-on was too big for Easyjet’s purse-sized limit, bag fees that were twice what I paid for the plane ticket, customs at Amsterdam Schiphol and a 30-minute train ride with hundreds of other harried travelers to Centraal station, I figure I saved myself about 40 minutes by flying instead of taking the train.

And spent about $100 more.

Don’t get me wrong – flying is convenient. Sometimes it’s the only practical option, like when you have three weeks of vacation and don’t want to spend more than a third of it crossing the Atlantic by sea. Or when you want to spend a weekend in Chicago and discover that using America’s current passenger-rail service means leaving Sacramento on Friday night and arriving in Chicago on Sunday morning.

But it’s also a carbon-emissions nightmare. It’s about the worst thing we as individuals can do for the environment. And if we’re concerned at all about the fact that by 2042 we’ll have used up our total carbon budget to keep the world from out-of-control warming, we’ve got to do something else.

For all President Donald Trump’s faults, he’s at least paid some lip service to the idea of a high-speed rail network. At a meeting with airline executives in February (talk about not speaking to your audience), Trump bemoaned America’s lack of high-speed rail. And in May, he directed his Transportation secretary to fully fund a $650 million effort to electrify tracks in the San Francisco Bay Area – which will be shared by California’s bullet trains when the state’s $64 billion network comes online in the mid- to late-2020s.

The Trump administration has also backed Texas’ bid for a private bullet-train line between Houston and Dallas, in theory if not yet with regulatory relief. But words aren’t actions, and Trump’s proposed budget earlier this year would slash the Department of Transportation’s budget by 13 percent and end subsidies for Amtrak’s long-distance trains, without which our national rail line – and any hope that it might someday operate at speeds above 200 miles per hour – would all but cease to exist.

Coupled with the current Republican-controlled Congress’ lack of appetite for anything as civilized as high-speed rail, my dream of seeing the United States from the comfort of a bullet train will likely die when I do.

It’s frustrating when our elected leaders would rather spend all their time repealing many people’s only shot at health insurance, or attempting over and over again to defund Planned Parenthood because some videotaping activist is crafty with an editing tool, than doing things that might actually help Make America Great Again. Or at least put her on an equal footing, infrastructurally speaking, with the modern world.

Not to mention doing something tangible to combat our carbon emissions. If California’s high-speed rail project does finally beat back mountains of litigation and secures full funding and is built and begins operating (all monstrous ifs even now, a decade after voters approved the project), Californians will be able to shuttle from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about two hours on trains that run on electricity produced by solar and wind farms. The short-haul flight, the pinnacle of the average person’s carbon-intensive activities – replaced by a fast, quiet, green mode of transportation with a dining car and no probing TSA agents.

When I took that short-haul flight from Berlin to Amsterdam a few years ago I thought I was saving time and money, but in the end saved neither. I arrived frazzled, tired and cranky. That’s no way to arrive in any city, least of all Amsterdam.

Last month I faced a similar situation when deciding how to get from Rome to Geneva. A 7-hour train ride or a 90-minute flight.

Flying over the Swiss Alps at 30,000 feet, they look like any old mountain range. I can’t tell the difference, really, between the Sierra and the Rockies at that height. Geologists can, I’m sure, but not me.

Winding through them by rail, however… that’s an experience I’ll keep with me for the rest of my life.

The Swiss Alps as seen from a Schweizerische Bundesbahnen high-speed train. Photo by William Dotinga
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