New York City’s decrepit subway system has been the subject of derision for years, and soon parts of it may finally show some improvement. On January 31st, president Joe Biden announced the allotment of $292 million dollars from the MEGA infrastructure bill signed in 2021 as part of Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” campaign. The funds will help finance the Hudson Tunnel Project, a $16 billion plan to improve the North River Tunnels (pictured below) and other sections of the Northeast Corridor (NEC). The Northeast Corridor is an electrified railway running from Boston to Washington DC with stops in between in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Owned mostly by Amtrak, the NEC is among the busiest and most important railway networks in the country.
The Hudson Tunnel Project, however, does not endeavor to build new high-speed railways. The United States claims to already have high-speed rail along the NEC: Amtrak’s “Acela,” which is the fastest train in the US. 124 miles per hour is the minimum in order to be considered “high-speed,” according to the International Union of Railways, which has three categories of high-speed rail. While the Acela qualifies at 155 mph, the train can only attain this speed for 49 of its 457 mile route.
Americans have grown increasingly impatient with our slow trains, traffic jams, and crumbling infrastructure. There are still people being impacted by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, while in Texas a winter storm in 2021 saw millions left without power when the power grid failed, causing multiple deaths. More recently, an ongoing water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi has worsened. Our political leaders and media lead memorials for the “Victims of Communism”, rattling off embellished statistics on famines, even as increasing numbers of Americans suffer under capitalism. Residents of Mississippi are unable to drink their water, and the local government ran out of bottled water to distribute, as water sanitation plants nationwide continue to deteriorate and fail. Our government is busy condemning nations like Iran for human rights abuses, even while it severely neglects its own citizens.
How have things gotten this bad? What happened to the efficiency and pragmatic approach to problem solving that once defined America? The country was at one time looked upon with envy by other world leaders industrializing their own. In “Foundations of Leninism” Josef Stalin wrote, “American efficiency is that indomitable force which neither knows nor recognizes obstacles; which with its business-like perseverance brushes aside all obstacles; which continues at a task once started until it is finished, even if it is a minor task; and without which serious constructive work is inconceivable.” He added, “The combination of Russian revolutionary sweep with American efficiency is the essence of Leninism in Party and state work.” Stalin, too, warned repeatedly of growing bureaucracy that, if not tamed quickly, would hinder the state’s progress.
Bureaucratic red tape and political disputes inevitably bog down infrastructure plans, since the various stakeholders are not unified behind a central plan. California’s proposed high-speed rail exemplifies our country’s inability to get anything done: In 2008, California approved a plan for a new train that could take passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just two hours, to be completed by 2020. Today, that project remains tied up and it still takes four hours by car or nine by train to get to the Bay Area from Southern California. In 2011, California’s rail system contracted a French company, Société nationale des chemins de fer français (SNCF). But SNCF ultimately abandoned the California project in favor of partnering with Morocco to build its high-speed rail, which it completed in seven years later. SNCF claimed that it chose Morocco over California in part because the African country was less “politically dysfunctional”.
Coming next in this series: we will discuss potential infrastructure solutions and reflect on how China has been able to reign in bureaucracy and build its vast, world class high-speed rail system. A high-speed rail trip from Harbin to Beijing, a distance covering 790 miles, takes about six hours. By contrast, a trip of comparable distance in the US from Chicago to Philadelphia via Amtrak takes a stultifying 17 hours. The American people are right to expect better.