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Obama: Think Radical -- Think Trains

While Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson performs a mysterious magic act in which he shows us what a deregulated bailout looks like, some of us are trying to imagine what President-elect Barack Obama can do to turn our country away from the disastrous and corrupt ways that have gotten us in this nice big mess.

This bailout is so lacking in oversight that almost half of the $700 billion disappeared with no explanation. The rest? Well, there's a new plan for that money, it seems. It also seems that what must be figured out are ways in which fresh directions can be profitable and competitive.

Obama's interviews about more fuel-efficient automobiles are not quite as interesting or important as what he has said about rebuilding the infrastructure of the nation, which would put, literally, millions to work and give us something more than hot air to explain where all of the invested money went. Bridges, roads and schools, as well as improved and expanded energy grids, would do something important for the country. But we also seem to be in the mood for something so classic that the millions who want to pitch in and do something need a clear path into the future.

If this nation set the goal of rebuilding the railroads and working out something with Detroit automakers that would produce the engines and the passenger and luggage cars, we would be on the way to a new kind of American life.

It may seem far out to move back into trains in a big way after Detroit has successfully spent so many years convincing Americans that an automobile is almost a constitutional right, but it makes much more sense than you might think. We also have a big asset: Obama possesses the sober, charismatic and inspirational power to get Americans to think beyond what we have all accepted, such as disappointment in the federal government.

Rebuilding and expanding our train system would bring about extremely fruitful construction projects. The new routes would add various levels of service to meet what could become a revolutionary number of customers who could not only count on speed, but also rely on the scenic experience that is much more likely when one is not driving.

It would also get us away from the gasoline pump, which has upended the American economy for the worst. With such independence from a toxic relationship to oil, which literally goes up in smoke to the tune of almost $800 billion a year, we could push the Middle East and the Russians into the train business.

Think about it. If the country could commit to bullet trains, first on the Eastern Corridor, then linking it to Chicago before building on to the major centers of the South and the Southwest, then finally the West Coast, top to bottom, we might actually enter a modern age that would benefit all of us, from the worker to the investor and on out to the public at large. The Japanese have already refined bullet-train technology, so it is there for the adapting to our landscape and our needs.

Years ago, a particularly brilliant redcap I met in Chicago was convinced that the railroad could meet the challenges and the expectations of family travel by setting aside entertainment cars for children to play in and others for teenagers who could avoid boredom with video games. Now, the redcap would surely expand that plan to include the Internet.

First-class airplane passengers have had individual systems in their seats on which they could play their own choices of DVDs and CDs for years. This should be available for train passengers, too. We all know it could work.

Now let's see if the president-elect and any of his brain workers start figuring out how much it would cost and how best to both convince the nation and go about building visible, solid and functional public and private projects. They could, like they say in the blues, stick their thumbs in the ground and turn the world around.