Gravy Train

northeast.maglevAnyone who has traveled on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor rail service (the Beantown-to-DC artery, which passes through New York and Philly) may want to cover their ears as we discuss this.

For years, Amtrak has touted its Acela service as America’s answer to the bullet trains of Japan and other high-speed rail links across the globe. The sleek Acela trains were designed to travel at speeds up to 220 m.p.h., but Congress never deemed it a priority to upgrade the tracks the publicly funded Amtrak service uses. So–for most of its trip–Acela chugs along at regular speed, like a Maserati stuck in rush-hour traffic on the Long Island Expressway.

Enter Northeast Maglev, a private Washington (DC)-based company which intends to build a magnetic levitation train line that will propel commuters on the DC-NY route at speeds up to 314 m.p.h., drastically improving on Acela’s 2 hr., 45 min. journey. Northeast Maglev says it has a $5-billion commitment from the Japanese government to help finance the first leg of the project (DC to Baltimore), which will cost about $10 billion; the full route to New York will require an estimated $100 billion to complete, according to a report in today’s New York Times.

If your eyebrows are rising when you hear that Japan is taking the lead on a major U.S. infrastructure project, check your blood pressure before you read the list of former public officials who have climbed aboard the Northeast Maglev initiative as “advisory board” members.

Three former governors, a former U.S. Senate majority leader and a former U.S. Secretary of Transportation have been enjoying multiple all-expenses-paid VIP tours of Japan as they lobby on behalf of the maglev initiative. The group includes Christie Todd Whitman (former governor of New Jersey), George Pataki (former governor of New York), Ed Rendell (former governor of Pennsylvania), Tom Daschle (former Senate majority leader) and Mary Peters, who served as Transportation Secretary in the Bush 43 administration.

On their latest junket to ride a prototype at a test track in Japan, former Gov. Whitman helpfully observed that Amtrak’s Acela is “an embarrassment” compared to the Japanese-made maglev model.

Actually, you and your for-sale-to-the-highest-bidder colleagues are the real embarrassments, Christie. These fellow travelers had the power to fix our decrepit rail system when they were in office and failed, miserably. Then they jumped aboard the gravy train of an effort that wants to replace that system with one made in Japan.

How many disgusting examples of revolving-door venality do the American people have to witness before we demand that Congress make this type of activity illegal?

We thought the tipping point was the revelation a couple of years ago that dozens of former top U.S. officials–including several Secretaries of State and a couple of U.S. presidents–are on the payroll of Saudi Arabia. Yeah, that Saudi Arabia, which according to 28 redacted pages in the 9/11 Commission report is home to several royal family members who reportedly may have been complicit in financing the attacks. But the gravy train just kept on going, picking up speed (and former officeholders) as it rolled along.

Significant hurdles still stand in the way of Northeast Maglev’s ambitions, including the acquisition of right-of-ways along the proposed route and the opposition of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, which has dismissed the maglev project as too expensive to build.

Don’t get us wrong–we’re absolutely in favor of upgrading America’s crumbling infrastructure and we’re not opposed to can-do private enterprise stepping in to do the job when our government trips over its own feet (a la NASA’s recent deals with SpaceX and Boeing to take over U.S. rocket production and ferry astronauts to space).

But it’s time to take the gravy out of the gravy train and tell our former public officials it’s the end of the line when it comes to lining their pockets.