Happening Now

Meet the Summer Interns: Colin

August 20, 2013

Written By Colin Leach

NARP has been pleased to host University of Maryland, Baltimore County graduate student Colin Leach as our summer intern. If you come to this site regularly, then you’ve probably already read some of his excellent work. But we wanted to take a moment to introduce him to you directly so you can understand the ideas and passions that motivate his work.

Colin Leach presents to Amtrak Government Affairs. Photo by Ross Capon.
Colin Leach presents to Amtrak Government Affairs. Photo by Ross Capon.

Working with NARP this summer has been a natural outgrowth of my research interests in history. I have long been intrigued by transportation policy in a comparative context, particularly in the differences between European and American transportation policies. As I was originally trained as a European specialist, I was amazed by Europe’s continuing embrace of passenger rail. At the same time when Americans were flocking to airplanes and cars, Europeans remained loyal to their trains. And not just the trains they already had: Europeans built newer, faster lines, resulting in the creation of networks such as the TGV and the ICE.

But I should also say that my interest at least partially stems from having grown up around trains all my life. Living just outside of Baltimore, I was never far from the either the Northeast Corridor or CSX’s Old Main Line west of Baltimore. I knew from a young age just how important railroads were to both our country’s past and present, and that they were certainly a big part of our future. That conviction also came from my father, who was a lifelong railfan. He used to regale me with tales of watching Pennsylvania GG1s hauling long passenger trains north towards New York and down towards Washington, regretting that age’s apparent passing.

As I grew older, I wondered why it *had* to pass. Why, as Americans, have we traditionally accepted that our only viable options for transportation should be on a plane or in a personal car? This has been the focus of my graduate research. In particular, I have focused on the initial efforts to develop an American high speed rail system in the 1960s. At that time, many Americans were not willing to cede the lead in rail transportation technology to Japan or Europe. Many, in fact, believed that America’s passenger railroads could adopt newer technologies and offer service competitive with airlines.

Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell was a great believer in that possibility. He championed the cause of high speed rail in Congress, offering his first proposal for the creation of a high speed system in 1962. His plan, which proposed the creation of a multi-state authority to oversee passenger service in the Northeast Corridor, was the first serious federal effort at investing in passenger rail. In many ways, Pell’s plan and the widespread support it attracted in Congress paved the way for Amtrak’s creation in 1971. Without Pell stoking congressional interest in the decline of passenger rail, there likely would never have been discussion of Amtrak’s creation.

However, existing scholarship has not explained how Pell’s ambitious plan became the minimal research program offered by the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965. This act, while it did provide for the creation of the Metroliners and Turbotrains, represented an at-best indifferent start. Failure of the Metroliners and Turbotrains to achieve projected revenues resulted in the federal government’s refusal to invest in high speed rail service until the late 1990s, a failure that has significantly harmed overall rail investment.

My research aims to answer this question and construct the first narrative around the fight for high speed rail. Rather than ascribing the failure of high speed rail to a supposedly inherent unprofitability (as we know, a very charged and often misused term in passenger rail circles), I contend that high speed rail failed due to a longstanding congressional hostility towards rail. By unfairly conflating the proposed public authority with the politically toxic concept of subsidy, combined with the political difficulties of creating such a broad administrative framework, Pell’s plan was reduced to a simple trial program that did not meet expectations. Furthermore, the program’s “failure” helped reinforce the flawed claims of the highway and airline lobby that high speed intercity passenger rail service was a passing fantasy, and not a practical solution.

In understanding the saga of America’s first experiment in high speed rail, I hope we will better comprehend why subsequent efforts have fallen short. I believe that my research will help advance the cause of passenger rail advocacy by stressing that opposition to passenger rail has never been based on sound policy, but rather on political prejudices.

My internship has given me the opportunity to explore this interest and its ramifications in a modern policy setting. By attending hearings, I’ve had the chance to see first hand the ongoing debate over passenger rail funding and the policy obstacles to offering more train service. Through my work on the NARP Blog, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect critically on issues affecting transportation and to critique the often flawed arguments of rail opponents. Overall, my internship has offered me an invaluable first-hand look at policy debates, and has given me a much more solid understanding of the larger political context.

Interning with NARP has also helped me define my career interest. After graduation, I hope to find a position in transportation policy either in Washington or in the greater mid-Atlantic area. To that end, I would also be interested in work in Congress as a legislative assistant focus on transportation issues. Ultimately, I hope to be in a position where I can advocate for a balanced, rational transportation policy that supports rail to the same degree as highways and aviation. My historical background tells me that rail has always been a backbone of the American economy; pretending that it is outmoded and can be replaced by highways and aviation is an extremely short-sighted proposition. With that in mind, I hope to help make progress towards NARP’s dream of more and better trains.