Suppose you just became the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic party, and suppose you really could use some of those Midwestern swing states in order to win the general election. Suppose, further, that you have mentioned how it would be a good thing to have high-speed rail coming out of Chicago, and that “the fight for American manufacturing is the fight for America’s future.” And further, suppose that there is a Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission that has plans in place to construct just such a network.

Chicago trains

Well, whaddaya know, all of those things have actually happened! In fact, according to an excellent study I found called “High-speed Rail Projects in the United States,” coming out of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University, there are a whole basket full of such proposals, some further along than others, spread all over the United States — and many plans are in swing states.

Consider the pathetic level of rail funding that the report highlights — and transit isn’t much better:

Between 1978 and 1999, federal transportation expenditures on rail totaled $18.3 billion (in constant 2002 dollars), roughly 3.6 percent of all transportation expenditures. This compares with $251.5 billion (49.9 percent) for highways; $58.3 billion (11.6 percent) for transit; $114.0 billion (22.6 percent) for air; and $58.0 billion (11.5 percent) for water transport. While all other modes experienced annual growth in expenditures of between 7.3 and 10 percent, rail actually experienced a decline during this period of 1.9 percent annually. According to Tim Lynch of Florida State University, this underinvestment in rail has resulted in the “serious erosion of potential ridership and high-end commodities shipments and resulting losses in user revenues and tax sources to support the mode.”

But now, with the price of gasoline lurching past four dollars per gallon, with the airlines “desperate,” and trucking in bad shape, perhaps Obama could use plans for a more positive vision of the future than taking a gas-tax holiday.

According to the International Herald Tribune, the global market for high-speed trains is booming — although there are no companies in the United States that could build one. But what if many of the industrial firms in those Midwestern swing states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania helped to build a whole new generation of high-speed trains and rail systems? What if the industrial machinery industries that serve those train industries were revived at the same time? And can you picture a Midwest — or a whole continent — crisscrossed with a fast, reliable, inexpensive network of trains powered by wind and solar power? Yes, we can!

high-speed rail
Photo: U.S. Department of Energy.