Riding the rails

acela in New Haven

OK, so this isn’t going to be the most scintillating post I’ve written. Even I — (in)famous for the bitchin’, blastin’ blog post — need a little banality break now and then.

The motivation to blog this morning is that I’ve written this post and uploaded it from an Acela train stopped in New Haven on the way to a business meeting in NYC. I’ve got my ThinkPad plugged in and my Internet connection going over an incredibly slow (but serviceable) T-Mobile Internet sharing connection on my cell phone. (Why it’s taken T-Mobile until now to launch 3G is beyond me. And the 3G network they are launching uses trash spectrum nobody else in the world is using.)

Back to the post…I remember when a stop in New Haven on a Northeast Corridor train necessitated a switch from electricity to diesel. I remember when you couldn’t hold a cup of coffee on the train because the rails didn’t understand parallel. I also remember when “on time arrival” meant “sometime on the scheduled day.” And, the general condition of the car I am sitting in isn’t terrible, as far as public accommodations in the US go. So things are improved. And the Acela, for all its problems, really does beat an airplane ride for a Midtown meeting.

But does this train — after all the investment and tax money — compare to the Shinkansen or the Inter-City Express or even the TGV? In a word, nope. No matter how much train buffs (a subculture I brushed up against when I was technology manager for the now-defunct Boston & Maine RR) wish it could be, this train isn’t even close. The cars are a little too run down. The service is a little too infrequent (why not Acela trains every 30 minutes in the morning and evening?).

But the major problem? It’s a number: 3:16. That’s the published time from Route 128 to Penn Station. Even the Big Dig has been completed (at an astonishing cost and loss of life). But Amtrak’s promise of a 2:30 trip from Boston to New York hasn’t been realized…and I doubt it ever will.

It’s a metaphor for the decline of American technology and capability. If ever there was a train route in the continental US that could support high-speed traffic, this is it. What a shame.





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