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Does Japan Have the Solution to Amtrak’s Problems?

Tokyo has proposed building a high speed rail connecting Washington to Baltimore, and eventually to New York City.

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Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor was one of the few bright spots on the United States’ much-maligned rail system. Connecting Boston to Washington via major cities including New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, the route was both profitable and enjoying a steady rise in ridership numbers. The deadly Amtrak accident Tuesday night, which killed at least seven people and injured dozens more when it derailed in Philadelphia, will change that, at least in the short term. Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter called the accident “an absolute disastrous mess,” adding: “Never seen anything like this in my life.” And in an ironic case of timing, on Wednesday the House Appropriations voted to cut Amtrak’s public funding in 2016, from $1.4 billion to roughly $1.1 billion.

How do you solve a problem like Amtrak, which has bled money practically since it began operating in 1971? Tokyo thinks it has a solution, at least for the Northeast Corridor: a high speed rail, built with Japanese technology and funded, at least in part, by Japanese money. In September, an investor group told Maryland state regulators it had lined up more than $5 billion from Tokyo, “which hopes to showcase the technology behind superconducting magnetic levitation or ‘maglev’ trains to an American audience,” according to The Washington Post. And in October, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that if Tokyo built the train, “you could travel from Washington to Baltimore in 15 minutes, and to New York within less than an hour.”

It would also help solve Amtrak’s problem of reliability. That’s what people want from Amtrak and especially its high-speed Acela line, according to R. Richard Geddes, director of Cornell’s infrastructure policy program: for a train scheduled to arrive at 10:30 a.m., for example, to actually arrive at 10:30 a.m. Amtrak’s express Acela line, which takes just under 3 hours to travel from Washington to New York City, was on time 69 percent of the time over the past year, compared with near 100 percent for Japan’s high speed rail the Shinkansen, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Safety-wise, Tokyo’s train system certainly is not any worse than Amtrak — though it might not be much better, either. “Amtrak is certainly not a notoriously dangerous mode of transportation,” said Clifford Winston, a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution think-tank. “We’re not behind the curve here.” And Tokyo has had its share of rail accidents, most notoriously in April 2005, when a commuter train derailed and crashed into an apartment building, killing 107 people on the train and injuring hundreds more.

Tokyo’s proposal is not out of the blue. Besides potential developments in the Washington-to-New York City route, there’s also a company trying to develop a high speed rail between Dallas and Houston. And in January, the state of California broke ground on a high-speed rail connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco – though it’s not expected to be operating until 2028. While emphasizing that the cause of Tuesday’s accident is still unknown, Geddes said “there’s consensus that Amtrak needs to be upgraded and modernized.”

So is high-speed rail the way to go? Probably not – because of the cost. Even if Tokyo does pay for more than $5 billion of the D.C.-to-Baltimore route, the entire project would reportedly cost at least $10 billion. And citizens of Baltimore and Washington aren’t exactly clamoring for the ability to travel quicker between the two cities. The tens of billions of dollars needed to build a maglev line between Washington and New York, the only connection that would make sense for the system, is so huge that the project won’t get built, Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, told The Washington Post late last year.

Why don’t we spend the tens of billions of dollars to upgrade our rail system? As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pointed out in a recent interview, China spends 9 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, while the United States spends only 1.7 percent. In March, Beijing announced that it will be spending roughly $128 billion on domestic rail construction in 2015, whereas the United States typically only spends $50 billion annually on road and transit projects.

Winston said the U.S. doesn’t spend tens of billions of dollars on rail projects because it would be a huge waste of money. China and Japan, with their extensive network of high-speed rail, “are making huge sacrifices for the systems they have – the billions and trillions they’re spending on these systems are costing them elsewhere.” High-speed rail, he said, doesn’t make sense in a country with a population as spread out, and as dependent on planes, and automobiles, as is the United States.

Rather, instead of relying on foreign government money, bring in the private sector. Upgrading the Northeast Corridor, Geddes said, can be done with a public-private partnership. This allows for more innovation and accountability – two qualities Amtrak sorely lacks. “The best practices come from the private sector,” said Winston. Trying to find government best practices – including with Tokyo — “is a race of the bottom.” Amtrak’s history “is a long and sad one,” said Winston. Its future doesn’t have to be.

 

 

JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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