A 76-year-old federal policy of feeding American roads while starving its rails has led to traffic gridlock, highway carnage, air pollution and dependence on foreign oil.
Congress last year took the first timid steps toward reversing those trends. Over the next five years, the government plans to spend $205 million on high-speed rail, mostly between Boston and Washington. But that is barely more than 1 percent of the federal transportation budget and a thousandth of what the European Community will spend on its rail network over the next 20 years.
As America faces economic competition from a unified Europe as well as Japan, our competitors' ability to move people and goods efficiently is far ahead of ours -- and the gap is widening. While the U.S. has been slow to spend money to upgrade the obsolete tracks of the Northeast Corridor, France has moved five million passengers a year since 1981 on its 185-mph trains -- the TGV. Germany and Japan each have invested $1 billion in research on trains that float on air above the tracks.
Europe never abandoned its railroads to the marketplace as America has done. The pressure on the European Community to curb cars is coming less from governments than from the people. Citizens, upset about the building of more highways, are taking matters into their own hands.
In April, the British minister of roads lost a parliamentary election to his Labor opponent after a ruckus over the construction of a new motorway. Local planning authorities, even in Conservative strongholds, have turned back recent efforts to build new highways.
In Germany, the Bundestag is expected to adopt a master plan to spend more money on railways than roads, partly in reaction to numerous lawsuits by citizens who are blocking new extensions of autobahns.
European governments have learned that people want a balanced transportation network -- one that moves people in a cost-effective way and coordinates road and rail. Most European cities link downtowns to airports by rail -- something that many major American cities have not done.
The nationalization of the German and French railroads was a military decision, not high-minded public policy. But years of large-scale governmental promotion of train travel has created habits that are two generations old. Millions of people in both countries are accustomed to rail travel at a time when both seek to introduce further high-speed travel that is beyond the imagination of most Americans in speed, luxury and convenience.
The French high-speed system turns a net 15 percent profit, debunking the idea that passenger railways only lose money; it has become a cash cow that subsidizes older, less-efficient lines.
High-speed passenger travel in the U.S. faces obstacles. The curvature of most East Coast tracks is too great to accommodate TGV-type trains, but Amtrak is testing a 150-mph Swedish train designed to lean into turns to counter centrifugal force.
One hundred years ago, federal officials barnstormed the country, constructing short stretches of paved road to generate support for a national road-building program. Similarly, if European rail passenger cars could be brought to our major cities to demonstrate their pleasures, imaginations would be kindled the way they were when the first horseless carriages chugged down our streets.
Stephen B. Goddard is author of the forthcoming "Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century."