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Stuck in neutral

There’s nothing like holiday gridlock to show why it’s time to get behind high-speed rail.

Bill Greene/Globe staff/file/Boston Globe

Plane, train, automobile: These are the main choices facing stressed-out, soon-to-be-weary travelers headed to New York City for Thanksgiving.

There might be a fourth option, if we could make real the fantasies of some past and present governors. They envision a voyager’s nirvana, and not just for one of the busiest travel days of the year.

First, where we are in 2013: stuck on the Massachusetts Turnpike, at the exit for Interstate 84. Driving is not all misery, with freedom and just $80 for gas and tolls to recommend it. The pastrami Reuben at Rein’s outside Hartford is not Carnegie Deli-worthy, but not expensive, either. The biggest drawback is that it can take four hours or longer to reach the Bronx, then three more to get to Manhattan — assuming you’re lucky enough to avoid that motorcycle gang on the West Side Highway. And once you get there, New York is the only city where it’s cheaper to have your car towed and fetch it than to use a parking lot.

So, is it off to Logan?


Not so fast. It was good to learn we can now keep our mobile devices on airplane mode, which most of us were doing anyway. And the time in the air is brief. But the price is high — $450 and up when I checked — the security searches still too intrusive, and what do we get for our troubles? Peanuts! No, really, peanuts — that’s what some airlines serve. And who isn’t worried that a set of golf clubs will plunk them on the head at the first sign of turbulence? Add the cab to Logan and the interminable taxi ride from LaGuardia to Manhattan, and it’s second-mortgage time. If you’re going to fly, go to Aruba.

So, it’s the train, and not just as the least of three evils. (I didn’t forget the bus. I know it’s cheap, but if you’re post-college and even thinking of such masochism, say these words after me: “Fung Wah.”) While as much as $250 per round-trip ticket for the preferred Acela is not great, almost everything else is. No frisking. Board in downtown Boston, get off in midtown Manhattan, 3½ hours or so, door to door. Sit in the “quiet car,” a craft beer in hand, washing down a smoked turkey and brie. To add to the joy, text all of your friends stuck on the Cross Bronx Expressway or some tarmac.


But after calling 1-800-USA-RAIL, phone your legislator, because the Acela averages just 75 miles per hour on its 231-mile trip to New York City. How does three times as fast sound? That’s available if you’re traveling in Japan, France, or China, but a pipe dream if you’re going from Boston to New York (or anywhere else in the United States, for that matter).

Which brings us back to those past governors, two former chief executives along the Northeast Corridor who know we can go much faster. Michael Dukakis, who served on the Amtrak board, says high-speed will address increasingly clogged roads and airports, save energy, and make travel virtually weatherproof. A former New York governor, George Pataki, told me much the same thing: good for economic competitiveness, the environment, and traveler convenience.

Dukakis says Amtrak trains will hit 220 miles per hour by 2040. Pataki, who unsuccessfully championed high-speed rail from New York City to Albany as governor, sees Dukakis and raises him 91 miles per hour. Just named to the advisory board of the magnetic levitation firm Northeast Maglev, Pataki promises it will whisk passengers with magnets, not wheels, at 311 miles per hour. It’s not science fiction; China has one in Shanghai.


Dukakis’s publicly funded train would get you to New York in 90 minutes, Pataki’s private venture in 60. When asked whether they’ll live to see it, Dukakis, the newly minted octogenarian, noted that his mother made it to 100 and tells me, “I sure hope so . . . 80 is the new 20.” Pataki, a dozen years his junior, is more sanguine, saying he’ll get a chance to ride “unless I get hit by a truck.”

These bipartisan dreams better become reality fast or America’s world ranking of 25th in infrastructure will dip even further.

President Obama did set aside $8 billion in his 2009 stimulus for high-speed rail, but critics now call it his “train to nowhere.” Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to get you from San Francisco to Los Angeles in record time took one-quarter of those federal funds, but the cost has grown,

Big Dig-like. In Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, GOP governors rejected high-speed stimulus dollars. Much of Washington state’s nearly $800 million share of the pie apparently went to cutting a three-hour-and-40-minute trip from Portland to Seattle by just 10 minutes. Yet China introduced more than 5,000 miles of real high-speed rail in half a decade.


So, as we briefly top out at 150 somewhere in Rhode Island, I’ll keep hoping for a breakthrough while reflecting on the words of the man behind the stimulus: “Let’s not have the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Let’s not, Mr. President, but we better get to perfect soon. All aboard?


Some 44 million Americans travel for Thanksgiving. Here’s how they do it.






Boat, bus, train

Source: 2012 AAA Thanksgiving Holiday Travel Forecast

Jim Braude is host of Broadside: The News With Jim Braude on NECN and co-host of WGBH’s Boston Public Radio on 89.7 FM. You can follow him on Twitter @jimbraude. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.