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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Christie and the KTX

-- by Tom Phillips

Traveling in Korea last week we took a ride on the KTX, the new high-speed rail service that carries more than 100 thousand passengers a day all over South Korea.   We rode from Mokpo at the southern tip of the country to Seoul, nearly 200 miles, in just over three hours.  There were no hitches, no delays, barely a rattle at speeds up to 175 miles an hour.  Best of all it was eminently affordable – less than 40 dollars one-way.  And the service is reliable:  KTX actually offers full refunds for any train that’s more than one hour late.   Naturally, I found myself wondering why we can’t do this in America. 

Americans led the way in train travel in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and there’s no reason why we couldn’t do it in the 21st.  We’re still the world’s largest economy, and if we could go to the moon, we could make high-speed intercity trains available and affordable, just as in Korea, Japan, and Europe.  It would create jobs, ease traffic jams, reduce carbon emissions and improve the quality of life.    

The problems are obviously not technical, but political.  We do have a government-subsidized railroad, but compared to the KTX it’s a mess.  Amtrak trains are slow, wobbly, unreliable, and far too expensive.  The Acela express from Washington to New York – roughly the same distance as from Mokpo to Seoul – is $198 round-trip if you book two weeks in advance, much more for same-day fares and first class seats.  The KTX is one fare all the time, and all first–class.   

 And try getting a refund from Amtrak if your train is late!    

During this year’s baseball playoffs, the Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles chartered an Amtrak train from Baltimore to New York after a night game.  Here’s how the trip went, according to the New York Times:  The train’s departure from Baltimore was delayed until around 2 a.m.  After it left the station, the trains struggled with intermittent electrical problems for about 30 minutes until passengers heard a bang, the lights went out and a smoky smell filled the cars.   It then coasted into Aberdeen at low speed.  The teams got off the train there and called a bus company for help.   The buses arrived at 3:30, and the players finally made it to New York at 6:15 a.m.    Yankee manager Joe Girardi said, “You’d think cities this close would be easy to get between, but not today.”    

This is a familiar story for many who have tried intercity rail travel in America.  It makes perfect sense, especially for short-to-medium hops like Baltimore to New York, but only if it’s done right.  Unfortunately that costs money, and Congress has never been convinced to come up with enough to develop a modern system.  Somehow, it seems, high-speed rail is frowned on by certain business interests:  the ones who make money from cars, planes, trucks and buses, and all the excess fossil fuel they burn.   

These interests and their lobbies have made a compelling case, actually convincing Americans that they don’t want or need more rail travel.  America is the only place in the world where a governor could win praise for canceling a railroad tunnel, wasting billions of already-spent dollars, and making life more difficult for generations to come.  That would be the enormously popular New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who in 2010 pulled out of a plan to build a new railroad tunnel from New Jersey to New York City.  The tunnel would have doubled capacity for New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains, which now share two 100-year-old single-track tunnels under the Hudson.  The obvious goal was to reduce the traffic that backs up for miles every day at the bridges and tunnels into Manhattan.    

The governor made much of drawing his line in the sand:  “You have to look them right in the eye, no matter how they try to vilify you for it, and you have to say No!’ he thundered in a speech at the George W. Bush Institute, attended by Mr. Bush and campaign guru Karl Rove.  (NY Times, April 10, 2012)   New Jersey taxpayers couldn’t afford their minor share of the costs, Christie decided, thereby enabling him to keep a campaign promise not to raise the state gasoline tax.  

Our hero!  As of November 2012, America is having one of its periodic love affairs with a politician they don’t know much about, mistaking his posturing for courage and his opportunistic maneuvers for non-partisanship.   Christie has gotten away with murder this year – delivering a keynote address at the Republican convention in which he spoke highly of himself and barely mentioned the nominee.  And he stunned the Romney camp a few days before the election by heaping praise on President Obama, as the two went about inspecting damage from Hurricane Sandy.   Christie managed to convince many that he was above petty politics, just a great team player in a crisis (unlike the case with the rail tunnel.)   This was no “embrace” of the President, he told reporters, just another example of his famous frankness:  “I’m a guy who tells the truth all the time.” (NYT,11/8/12)  Some right-wing radio types actually blamed Christie for Obama’s re-election, probably an exaggeration.   But think about it:  Romney’s loss clears the way for Christie to run in 2016.    

Who knows?  President Christie might do great things for America.  Just don’t expect the trains to run on time. 
-- Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips