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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Attaboy, Switzerland

For several weeks there has been drama in New Jersey, whose Governor has canceled construction of a new railroad tunnel under the Hudson River into Manhattan. The existing railroad tunnel under the Hudson was built in 1910. At rush hours it cannot accommodate additional trains, so it constrains the growth of employment in Manhattan. And at 100 years of age, there are concerns about its long-term structural integrity and the impact if terrorism were to shut it down.

New Jersey does not deny that the proposed tunnel is needed; they say it’s not affordable. They may be correct, but consider what this says about our nation.

Switzerland just completed a 35-mile railroad tunnel under the Alps. It's world’s longest tunnel of any type and will move even more freight from Switzerland’s highways onto their phenomenal railroad system.

The Swiss spent $10 billion on this one project. For a country whose population is smaller than North Carolina’s or Georgia’s, that’s almost unimaginable: $1250 for each man, woman, and child in the country. Switzerland has a high standard of living, but not everyone in the country is a millionaire. (I still have distant family there.) It’s strong testimony of Swiss commitment to the environment.

It’s also strong testimony to Swiss railroads. Years ago I led a group of business colleagues from the U.S. and Canada to visit a supplier in Switzerland. I had booked a seven-minute connection from one train to another at Winterthur, a city of 100,000. One of my colleagues thought I was crazy, so he inquired of a station agent whether a seven-minute connection was valid. The look on the station agent’s face was priceless; you’d have thought his mother had been insulted. I understood some of the Swiss German he muttered about clueless Americans. Naturally, those trains ran on-time -- to the minute – and we easily made our connection at Winterthur. The punctuality of Swiss trains is no joke.

But Switzerland isn’t the only country investing in passenger rail. China just confirmed they are building a new high-speed line between Beijing and Shanghai, which are 800 miles apart. The trains will be the world's fastest, averaging 200 mph end-to-end, and are expected to carry over 200,000 passengers a day. That’s five times the number of people Amtrak carries between Washington, New York, and Boston.

Meanwhile, Amtrak limps along doing the best it can with trivial money for investment. Our nation is spending itself to death on a military far larger than we need and a healthcare system that is fundamentally flawed – even after the so-called reform this year.