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Published: Tuesday, 7/1/2008

Re-training America

AT A TIME when Americans find long-distance road travel increasingly expensive and air travel close to unspeakable because of cuts in service and torment by security, thoughts inevitably turn to travel by train.

It's not a viable alternative for many travelers, however. What's left of passenger service in this country is offered largely by Amtrak, but service is spotty and its capacity falls far short of what the country now needs.

What needed to be done in the early 1970s, when the United States was facing another oil crisis, was to develop rapid-rail service capacity along the nation's major arteries. (Amtrak has only limited high-speed service.) Tracks needed to be replaced, and new routes developed, capable of handling fast trains.

But it was not a priority for the "wise" leaders of both political parties, whether in the White House and in the Congress. The federal government was more interested in spending money on the Vietnam War, the arms race with the dying Soviet Union, and, most recently, the war in Iraq.

Installing rapid-rail capacity would have been expensive, of course, but Japan did it. France did it. The United Kingdom did it to some extent.

Convenient passenger rail travel was this nation's transportation strength for much of its early history, and respectable service lasted until it was finally marginalized by the rise of the automobile in the post-World War II suburbanization of America.

A main barrier to the United States rejoining the modern world in rail travel has been the ingrained idea that railroads had to be profitable and not a creature of government subsidy. But was there ever any idea, for example, that the car and oil companies should build America's roads? Or that the airlines should build the airports? No. Taxpayers built the infrastructure for those modes of transportation.

Now, of course, Americans' transportation backs are against the wall. Gas prices continue to soar. The airlines are charging, beyond the basic ticket, for "frills" like assigned seats and checked bags. It's no surprise that Amtrak served more riders in fiscal 2007 than at any time in its 37-year history. Last month alone, it had a 12 percent jump in passengers, which suggests a burgeoning appetite for train travel.

Today, however, trains are either nonexistent in parts of the country, have inconvenient running times - especially through Toledo - or are overextended in heavily traveled corridors like the Northeast.

This is another project for the new administration. America needs to build a new high-speed rail network. Use the money from an ended Iraq war. It will create jobs, for one thing. The country's rail sector must join the 21st century. The times demand it.

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