On that train all graphite and glitter

Undersea by rail

Ninety minutes from New York to Paris…

Donald Fagan, “I.G.Y.” 

On my recent journey along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, evidence of the federal government’s renewedand, in many ways, long overdueinvestment in rail service were hard to miss. 

Station improvements in Philadelphia and Wilmington, right of way upgrades in New Jersey, andunder way, but largely out of sightcommunications and technology improvements designed to boost the corridor’s efficiency, safety, and security 

And there’s more to come through the combination of ARRA, Amtrak, and long-term high-speed rail funding. 

Equally as significant was the fact that my off-peak trains both to and from New York City were sold out, a good sign that the demand to justify and support these and other improvements is there. 

But before getting too carried away with visions of the same kind of sleek, fast-moving trains that inspired Donald Fagan’s retro-paean to the International Geophyiscal Year, other views outside my window brought my thoughts back to the here and now. 

One is that despite this promising start to America’s rail renaissance, there’s an awful lot of work that has to be done before Acela trains clocking 100+ mph become routine. Along with the miles of tracks awaiting upgrade, there are  innumerable structures to strengthen, facilities to build, and connecting roads and transit systems to improve.

All this will require far more money than is currently included in President Obama’s long-term high-speed rail strategy.  

And even if the current commitment to rail is sustained, resulting in seamless, high-speed connections between the nation’s economic centers, there’s still the matter of the neighborhoods of dilapidated houses and long-shuttered industrial sites lining the Northeast Corridor that stand (often barely) in stark contrast to the shiny, bright vision of high-speed rail.  

Will the economic benefits that have long been used to justify investments in transportation reach these areas too? Or, will they simply blend into the blur outside the window, becoming the high-speed rail version of “flyover country” and losing the fleeting visibility afforded by today’s “slow-speed” trains?

This is in no way a knock on the current high-speed rail strategy, nor is it a call for our political leaders to “do something.” By any standard, this new investment in rail is much-needed and long-overdue just for stabilizing Amtrak's existing service alone.

Just as a new rail system won’t materialize overnight, its promised bounty of economic growth will take time to emerge as well, regardless of how many “shovel-ready” projects and well-moneyed private-sector partners there are.

Rather, it’s a reminder that as the vision of high-speed rail takes its first billion-dollar steps toward reality, creating a reliable, sustainable infrastructure will be only part of the journey.  Delivering on the system’s promise of economic growth and new industry will require many more steps beyond that. 

We don’t have to look far to find places to take them. They’re all there, right outside the window.