A Transcontinental Railroad for Today
By Nancy Spannaus
May 10, 2022—There are few infrastructure projects more important for the United States today than high-speed rail. The building of a national high-speed rail network for freight is essential for resolving troublesome bottlenecks in the supply chain and boosting productivity overall. The impact on moving people would also bring tangible gains by eliminating wasted time and easing communication throughout the entire country.
But while there’s no lack of ideas for building such a network, the infrastructure plan passed by the Congress last year included absolutely no funds for high-speed rail. Vital monies were allocated for Amtrak and some local urban transit systems, but that is a drop in the bucket in terms of what is required.
It’s time to think on the scale of Lincoln’s Transcontinental Railroad, whose completion is celebrated today, the anniversary of the meeting of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah. There is much to learn from that project, from its successful utilization of government credit to fund what private enterprise could or would not do on its own, to the mobilization of manpower and brainpower to overcome huge physical obstacles. The increase in productivity of the U.S. economy was only one part of the gain.
There’s no question but that such an undertaking, which would involve electrifying the network as well as constructing the track and cars, is currently beyond the physical capability of the U.S. economy. We need to dramatically increase the manufacturing and engineering sectors for all the inputs into such a national project, much as the Apollo space program demanded a scientific mobilization all across the nation. We need abundant, cheap, and ubiquitous electric power, which can only be provided by reviving the nuclear industry and re-regulating the grid according to our national needs.
This blog has featured significant coverage of the Transcontinental Railroad over the last few years; the most comprehensive article was the 2019 piece entitled “A Railroad to Bind the Nation.” More discussion of the financing was included in “Lincoln’s `Internal Improvements’ Revolution.”
As for the current plans for a national high-speed rail network, take a close look at the map above being circulated by the Transportation Economics & Management Systems group of Frederick, Maryland, one of many proposals in the works. Envision clean, rapid travel available to all, opening new opportunities for commerce, culture, and collaboration from coast to coast. With an American System approach to economic development and finance, and a lot of hard work, it can be done.
Many public officials, after traveling to China, Japan, and Western Europe, have publicly bemoaned the state of rail travel in our country. We’re like a Third World country, they say. It’s time to move beyond complaining and build the equivalent of a new Transcontinental Railroad – not just for us, but for the future.
Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics, available here.