Slate: My Train Fantasy Where’s our high-speed rail? [View all]
Last month, graphic designer and railroad aficionado Alfred Twu published a stunning map of what America would look like if virtually every last nook and cranny of the country were connected by a state-of-the-art, 220-mph rail network. Twu’s plan for a national high-speed rail system could get passengers from Cheyenne, Wyo., to Albany, N.Y., in just under 12 hours. It captured an old-school patriotic longing among young tech-savvy Americans for big, prestige projects with a design that was elegant in its simplicity. Online media outlets described Twu as a “visionary.” “This Is What America's High-Speed Rail System Should Look Like” was one typically glowing headline.
Some conservatives had a different description for Twu and his map. “High-speed rail supporter Alfred Twu has gotten a lot of attention for having boldly drawn a map of where he thinks high-speed trains should go,” wrote Randal O’Toole of the libertarian Cato Institute. “Twu’s map is even more absurd than Obama’s plan,” he wrote, describing the map, and high-speed rail in general, as a “ridiculous fantasy.”
O’Toole’s reaction demonstrated one of the principal reasons why American high-speed rail has been mostly stymied: One person’s beautiful vision of the future is another’s terrifying government boondoggle. The Obama plan to use $8 billion in stimulus money as a carrot to get states to invest in high-speed rail went down in flames two years ago. It failed largely because Republican governors in states such as Florida rejected federal funds. But if there were some way to get beyond partisan politics and legal battles over right-of-way issues, what would an ideally efficient map of an American high-speed rail system actually look like?