In the late 1860s, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies raced toward each other across the then-desolate plains and mountains of the continent, meeting at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869. The replacement of the ceremonial golden spike completed the railroad and specially rigged telegraph lines sent signals to alarms in San Francisco and New York, in what some call the first national news event. The Pacific had been connected with the Atlantic and renowned lines like the Sunset Limited and the Empire Builder connected Louisiana to Los Angeles and Minnesota to Seattle well into the 20th century.

Today, our railroads have decayed to the point that passenger miles are only one-third of what they were in 1960. Supplanted by air and car travel, train travel has been relegated to the background for Americans. Growing up in California’s car-centric culture, I’ll admit that taking the train rarely entered my imagination. However, I also know the disadvantages of car culture, most noticeably the way it makes freeways into parking lots and turns blues skies brown. In spite of this, railroads have continued to decline until recently.

Reversing this downward trend, trains have begun to make a comeback this year. Amtrak set a new record for passengers in May, which is traditionally not a strong travel month, and projects to carry 27 million passengers in 2008, an increase of 8 percent from 2007. Ticket revenue has risen by even greater margins as Amtrak adopted a yield management strategy similar to that used by airlines in order to maximize income from sales. However, unreliable funding from Congress has hampered Amtrak’s efforts to modernize, keeping it from planning for future developments, and the trains are now reaching their carrying capacity. It is possible that, just as the company moves toward economic sustainability, Amtrak’s previous funding problems will be its undoing.

any have derided Amtrak as a waste of taxpayers’ dollars and, as ridership dropped, this was perhaps true. A variety of political and economic pressures have forced Amtrak to maintain money-losing routes and freight companies’ ownership of the lines themselves have made it difficult for Amtrak’s service to be on time. Because of this, for many of the people who ride Amtrak, the attraction is often the ride itself or the scenery that it passes.

However, the development of a functioning intercity rail network in America is indispensable if we wish to reduce the impact our travel has on the environment and meet our transportation needs of the new century. In the United States, traveling by train emits less than half as much carbon per mile traveled than air and car travel, an efficiency that would increase with ridership. The journey from London to Paris by the well-ridden Eurostar emits only one-tenth of the carbon emitted by a parallel flight.

odern rail can also alleviate the growing pressure on American highways and the unacceptable strain on overused runways at our airports. The Acela, which runs in the Northwest Corridor between the capital and Boston, has begun the transition, carrying 60 percent of passengers between New York and Washington – but its top speed of 150 mph does not compare to European high-speed trains.

In California, once the destination of the Transcontinental Railroad, the first step may soon be taken towards a modern rail future. Proposition 1A, a Bond Measure placed on the November ballot, would, if approved by voters, begin funding the construction of a high-speed rail network connecting San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Diego with trains traveling up to 220 mph. The high-speed rail network would avert the need for 3,000 new miles of freeway as well as five new airport runways and 90 new departure gates for approximately half the cost ($82 billion compared to $40 billion).

Also, the train would eliminate 12 billion pounds of carbon emissions per year, roughly equivalent to one million cars’ yearly emissions. Traveling by train would be more comfortable, more reliable and just as fast as air travel if you include check-in and security. The network would be funded by a coalition of state, federal and private organizations and is projected to be economically independent, not needing taxpayer subsidies once initial capital costs have been recouped.

California’s high-speed rail plan may prove too good to be true. Voters must approve it before the arduous task of constructing it begins – and cost overruns are of course possible. Nonetheless, the rest of the nation must follow suit. While trains may never replace cross-country flights, intercity rail that connects clusters of cities is absolutely necessary if we hope to reverse the effects of climate change and cope with the growing burden of efficient transportation. In the Midwest, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit could be connected by lines shorter than those currently planned in California. The Acela connects two of the most powerful cities in the world, and it should be upgraded so that its speed reflects that.

It is as if we have been looking backward out the window as the scenery whizzes by, into a past where the locomotive has become a relic; now is the time to turn our gaze forward, to a future where high-speed, reliable and efficient train travel is the norm.

Somerset Perry is a senior in the College. He can be reached at perrythehoya.com. BIODEGRADABLE appears every other Friday.

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