This just in from the here we go again department. After the health care debate dies down, plan on taking up arms on behalf of high speed rail and funding for Amtrak. Sombody, cue “Amtrak Joe” Biden. It’s curtain time.

Just over the horizon, beyond the health care debate are all the future scraps that we have to look forward to. Today’s Washington Post features an op-ed piece by Robert J. Samuelson attacking President Obama’s commitment to high speed rail and taking aim at another perennial favorite punching bag of conservatives, Amtrak.

Yeah, right, here we go again, and so’s your mama…

The reality of the matter is that the gridlock in both the air and on the highways on the east coast have made high-speed rail more imperative than ever. Anyone from Washington DC ought to know this, but for Mr. Samuelson and others living inside the bubble, seats on Amtrak are hard to come by all over the place, not just in the Northeast Corridor. The same is true for the Midwest, where rail ridership has tripled in 6 years and in California where voters have mandated their cash-strapped leaders to build more rail and free their lives from gridlock.

If Amtrak were an airline, it would be the nations fourth largest and the carrier is still gaining ground. Even long distance services are on the rise for the first time in decades. Amtrak is so pressed that it hasn’t got the equipment to keep up with demand, a result of successive Republican administrations to slowly strangle it to death.

Whether rail works or not ought ot be obvious. The experience of Illinois is a good case in point. When that State decided to subsidize additional trains, largely through the efforts of Senator Dick Durbin and far sighted Democratic allies back home, with more service between Chicago and St. Louis, Chicago and Quincy and Chicago and Carbondale, ridership went through the roof, no matter that the equipment Amtrak had to offer was not exactly their best. Illinois riders wanted more!

OK, conservatives say in response, but those liesurely long distance trains, who the hell needs those anymore?

Anyone whose taken Amtrak’s Empire Builder (and I have) across the northern tier can tell you about the crowds that wait to board the once a day train at places like Minot, North Dakota and Wolf Point, Montana. Amtrak keeps these remote states economically viable. Trent Lott was one of Amtrak’s biggest supporters, not because he was fond of trains, but because the price of an airline ticket between Jackson, Mississippi and Atlanta, Georgia is about the same as heart surgery.

Oh, what about that Sunset Limited, that useless train that runs between New Orleans and Los Angeles. Conservatives arguments against rail always winds up riding on the Sunset Limited.

It’s true that the train isn’t exactly a stellar performer in the ridership department, but it also only runs three days a week. If Illinois’ experience is any indicator if you stepped that up to daily and re-routed it so it reached Phoenix, the Sunset Limited might perform, too.

Americans are also used to thinking that Amtrak trains are not much of a bargain in the service department. Have you ridden in an airline seat lately. Amtrak’s customer service runs circles around their air competitors. Here’s another dirty little secret. Amtrak’s treains are often nicer than their European counterparts, at least the long distance trains are.

I recently rode the Southwest Chief in a sleeper between Chicago and Los Angeles. The ticket was $400 something and included meals in the dining car, a shower in the sleeping car besides my little private room with a view and a bed. A German couple travelling in the same sleeping car were thrilled to death. “I wish we had nice trains like this in Germany,” one of them said, “it’s just like those Hollywood movies.”

Our trains aren’t fast, but they’re fun.

With high speed rail money available from the stimulus, everybody wants a piece of it. I might agree that Governor Bill Richardson’s last minute application for consideration for an El Paso to Albuquerque high speed rail line over the sparsly popoulated desert is not a top priority. If conservatives wanted to be responsible critics they could lodge an objection rightly there, but a train across Ohio between Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati probably would be in order.

Wisconsin, like Illinois, has even put some skin in the game contracting with Spain’s Talgo Company to build high speed rail cars in the Dairy State for use on the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor and a future high speed line to Minneapolis. Wisconsin will get two birds with it’s stone, transportation infrastructure and good paying jobs for its workers.  

China is spending billions on rail to prepare for the coming century. If the United States intends to maintain its (big economic term coming up here) comparative advantage economically we need to rebuilt our rail infrastructure or learn to start speaking Cantonese.

Wouldn’t that just thrill Tom Tancredo!