What About Amtrak and Afghanistan? Sometimes Building Big Is the Problem

erie canal wide What About Amtrak and Afghanistan? Sometimes Building Big Is the Problem

The long-forgotten Erie Canal. (The Atlantic)

Brooklyn architect David Grider had an interesting rebuttal to The Observer‘s story last week about the need for greater infrastructure investment in the country and the region, which challenges many assumptions about rail travel and even reminds us the Erie Canal was not the super success everyone likes to remember it as.

If Amtrak can barely manage to run conventional trains in the NE corridor how can we expect a high-speed rail network in the car-addicted hinterlands to be anything other than a pork-lined boondoggle?

And in that light, I was reminded of the Erie Canal, which must be remembered as two separate projects: the first, DeWitt Clinton’s vital link, was unquestionably a triumph and in keeping with the grand spirit of Doing that we seem to be missing these days. However, there was a second phase, the widening of the Erie Canal, which was an absolute money pit, the worst form of government pork, done in the face of clear railroad dominance/superiority and in spite of the calls of leading civil engineers of the time.

My hunch is that high-speed rail falls into the latter category but, more to the point, I think the view of past “triumphs” is (as I’m sure you’re aware) more nuanced than one often hears. We all know the stories of Moses’ destructive paths thru the City and mass-transit resistant parkway bridges; how many of us hear about the failures (such as the widening of the Erie Canal) that stole just as much from the public weal if, albeit, in a less obvious manner?

Finally, your article left me thinking of a Moses-scaled project that the American people have funded over the past decade: how much infrastructure has been built/destroyed/built again with Yankee dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Talk about a stake in the ground….

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC


  1. Willie Green says:

    Well Matt, I’ll have to say that I agree for you, although perhaps not for the reasons that you might suspect.

    We ARE faced with the necessity of upgrading and expanding our regional passenger rail service due to diminishing global supplies of easily extractable fossil fuels. Regional passenger rail is more fuel efficient per passenger-mile than either short-hop commuter airline service or congested highway travel.

    But as you point out, the NE corridor is not the appropriate region to focus our resources. State-of-the-art HSR technology is very expensive, especially so in a region that is already densely developed.  I believe that it was irresponsible for John Mica to “compromise” on the Amtrak issue by dumping our limited resources down the NE Corridor drain in order to deprive other regions of the nation the necessary funding to revive, upgrade and expand traditional regional passenger service more pragmatically and with greater benefits.

    We shouldn’t focus on the political glamor of 180 mph technology when traditional 90~110 mph passenger service is very adequate provided that it is reliable, frequent, competitive and convenient.

  2. Russell says:

    The problem is not Amtrak, the problem is Congress and its lack of comitment over the past 40 years to invest in any form of viable rail transport.  For the money given Amtrak has done a spectacular job of running the nations passenger railroad.  As for a comparason of Amtrak or passenger rail to the Erie canal, maybe you should ask the French, Germans, and Japanese if they think their trains are Erie canals!  Ask them while they speed along flawlessly at 200 mph!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Wow!  Amtrak, Erie Canal, Moses, Yankee’s, Iraq, Afghanistan, oh and the ever so present word we always see in Tea Party extremist post, blogs, and webpages,…..”boondoggle”.  I just don’t see all the linkage to a system that over 30,000,000 passengers take a year.  Maybe the author is trying to show the linkage of Iraq to Afghanistan by way of the Erie Canal, while walking with Moses and spending Yankee dollars with a boondoggle on his back?  If you want to see a real boondoggle look at what the total cost taxpayers spend on air transportation, air ports, airline subsidies, air traffic control, to the point that some seats are being subsidized over a $1000 for a short 150 mile trip, now there is a boondoggle! 

  4. Russell says:

    One other point that Matt seems to ignor.  The Erie canalwas never left to die, it is now the NY state barge canal which is a viable waterway supporting all types of commerce all through upper NY. 

    It is also a taxpayer funded transportation resource which the “booddooglers” seem to overlook.  @ finitive1   I agree with you!  There just isn’t any way in my book to politly describe the Tea Party!  (idiots)

  5. Anonymous says:

    Perfect!  The time-honored technique for attacking Amtrak or any new rail project: just call it “a boondoggle”!  No further thinking required. But in this offering, we get a bonus argument: Don’t invest in high-speed rail because the Erie Canal wasn’t an immediate success. Well, you sure got me with that one! I’m speechless.  And here I thought we should go with rail just because it’s been a proven success everywhere else in the rest of the world for more than 30 years. Silly me.

  6. BridgeOB1 says:

    Willie Green’s last paragraph pretty much says it all.  I will note, however, that Germany has managed to fit in true high speed rail in a country that is much denser than ours.   However, I’m with Willie in that we need to first build up a national/regional network of 90-110 (perhaps 120-125 in some places) mph trains rather than blow our money on true HSR in one or two corridors and thus ignoring the rest of the country (and given the frequency of stops, 150-160 mph is fast enough in the NEC — just fix the tunnels, bridges and power distribution system).