Happening Now

When Sarcasm Isn’t Enough

March 29, 2024

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

A little over a month ago, you may remember that I went on a minor rant about the fact that in February NASA and its partner Intuitive Machines managed to conceive, design, develop, build, launch, and land a sophisticated spacecraft on the Moon in six years’ time for less than the cost of 13 railcars. Oh, and that's also about the median time it takes to get a project's environmental review paperwork through the wickets at DOT.

At the time, I thought I was engaging in sarcastic exaggeration when I declared that maybe it really IS easier and cheaper in this country to do Moon shots than to deliver reliable, modern passenger rail throughout the country. I was just trying to make a rhetorical point about the sometimes-absurd obstacles we face in expanding passenger rail, and setting the stage for some of the concrete steps your Professional staff is developing to pull down those obstacles.

I wasn't serious.

Well, a month later apparently it's "All Aboard the 'Moon Train.'"

Yes, you read that right. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA – the people who brought you the Internet – recently awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman to look at ways to build a railroad on the Moon...in ten years’ time. (Hat tip to my former employers at Aviation Week for this item.)

Meanwhile, back down here on Earth, we're genuinely excited that the Federal Railroad Administration is considering how to open some new long-distance routes in 36 years. And that's even with the simplified version of new routes running trains on existing track that doesn't have to be built from scratch and where trains are already running today.

What's wrong with this picture?

Earlier this month, Government Affairs and Policy VP Sean Jeans-Gail from your professional staff and I met with dozens of congressional offices to talk about the future of passenger rail. What we found was both exciting and frustrating. On the plus side, we heard real energy and enthusiasm about passenger rail's future, excitement ushered in by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Even better, that was on both sides of the political divide. But we also heard bipartisan frustration with how slow that future seems to be in coming.

In one of those meetings, I actually brought up the Moon train and said, "is it really easier to land on the Moon and build trains there than it is to do it here?" And this veteran Hill staffer said, with a laugh, "Yes, it is! There's no NEPA permitting on the Moon."

They're right, of course. We've made one of the cornerstones of your Association's legislative agenda this year finding creative ways to get things moving more quickly...without ruining the environment or making engineering mistakes.

We've already started circulating ideas in Congress for whatever law comes next after the five-year Bipartisan Infrastructure Law runs out in 2026, including at least eight specific, concrete actions that have already worked in other countries to speed project delivery and lower costs. Both Democrats and Republicans are listening. They’re listening for different reasons, of course, but both sides are listening.

It's taken us nearly 10 years to get to a place where Congress will regularly listen to us, consider our ideas, and even ask us for our advice. But today they do that, almost every day. And that's how we're going to make America's trains better for everyone, by being in the room and at the table to work directly with the decisionmakers whose work affects your trains, your ride, and your community.

When we say we’re in the room and at the table, that’s what that means. But we probably won’t worry about trains on the Moon just yet.