Snail rail

Were 1860s Irish and Chinese workgangs 16-times more productive than Amtrak's contractors? asks David Snow.

Railroad enthusiasts, mark your calendars – sometime around 2035 you’ll be able to ride a brand-new high-speed Amtrak rail service from Washington DC to Boston.

If I’m lucky, I’ll get to take my son, now 6, on the journey for his 30th birthday!

David Snow

I admit I have no engineering expertise, but the recent announcement from Amtrak about its high-speed rail masterplan for the US Northeast Corridor has struck me as hugely unambitious. The press release breathlessly promises a three-hour trip from DC to Beantown, which is impressive until you get to the part that says the construction time is estimated at 25 years.

Twenty-five @#$% years? Let’s compare that estimate to the ongoing work on China’s Jinghu High-Speed Railway, which will connect the 819 miles between Beijing and Shanghai. Construction began in 2008 and the service is expected to be completed next year. The total length of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is 457 miles, and Amtrak already owns 363 of those miles.

Even more puzzling, let’s look at the history of America’s first transcontinental railroad, which was built largely by spike-driving immigrant Irish and Chinese workgangs. These “contractors” connected Alameda, California with Omaha, Nebraska (1,777 miles) in roughly six years between 1863 and 1869.

Is it going to take modern-day Amtrak 25 years to build 457 miles of rail while it took the 1860s Central Pacific and Union Pacific companies six years to lay down 1,777 miles? That is, was post-Civil War American engineering 16-times more efficient than post-Iraq War engineering?

Of course not. The protracted timeframe is a symptom only of modern-day political timidity.

In his book, Bold Endeavors: How Our Government Built America, and Why It Must Rebuild Now, former US ambassador Felix Rohatyn laments the absence of “bold endeavors” on the American infrastructure scene. Amtrak’s underwhelming announcement should be Exhibit A for Rohatyn’s argument.