Amtrak: The 2008 election linchpin

I have exaggerated and generalized to grab your attention. But it's not that much of a stretch to put reviving the North American continent's moribund passenger rail network at the heart of what really matters in this election year. By this, I mean how the American presidential and congressional candidates, and their analogs in Canada, approach the subject of mass transportation will tell you a lot about whether or not they understand the most important challenges facing society.

OK. I'm still exaggerating. But not much. Passenger rail and other forms of efficient ways of moving people further than they can bicycle in a hour, is a key to a sustainable future.

While Detroit and its Asian competitors search desperately for cheap and robust battery technologies, the lifespan of today's automobile fleet makes it extremely unlikely that the industry will be able to make any kind of serious contribution to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions within the time-frame required to slow global warming. Even if we have an electric car available tomorrow, drivers won't trade in their internal combustion models for something cleaner unless they can recoup their investment.

But they will park their dinosaurs and take the train. So say the latest numbers on passenger rail traffic.

Amtrak President Alex Kummant said the numbers point to a sixth straight year of record passengers. He estimated a more than 11 percent rise this year on its 21,000 miles of track, building on last year's 26 million passengers.

He attributes about half that growth to higher gas prices. "It depends on the service but certainly our ridership growth is linked to the fuel prices," he said in an interview. "We are up against capacity limits." (Reuters, June 11, 2008)

That kind of rise is still peanuts, compared with what we should be seeing, at least east of the Mississippi, where population density could easily support European-style passenger rail networks. There is simply no excuse for not putting passenger rolling stock on every rail line that hasn't deteriorated beyond the point of minor repair.

I'm not the only fan of rail. James Howard Kunstler, he of The Long Emergency, has long argued that reviving America's passenger rail network would be the single-most valuable thing we could do to get this country off oil. That's a worthy goal, one that would offer enormous benefits for national security, as well as the obvious advantages from a climate change mitigation point of view. Here's Kunstler talking about the subject to The Energy Bulletin earlier this year:

My highest priority is that we have got to revive, repair and restore the American passenger rail system. There's no project that would have a greater impact our our oil use; it would put tens of thousands of people to work at meaningful jobs; the technology already exists and doesn't have to be invented. In fact, we need to start at a less grandiose level than the people who are pimping for mag-lev and high-speed rail. We need to demonstrate that we can do it on the Bulgarian level, because we have a rain system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. We have to get up to that level first.

Kunstler has some other reasons to make Amtrak something serious. In fact, it's hard to think of a good reason not to embrace the idea of making it a national obsession:

We need to do a project as a nation that would demonstrate to ourselves that we're capable of facing the difficulties that are coming down at us in the future. And this is one that is at least doable because most of the infrastructure is still lying out there rusting in the rain. And if we fail to do this, we're going to find we're in a situation where not only are we faced with an array of much more difficult problems all converging and ramifying each other, but we're not going to have any confidence in facing these things.

I'm not a fan of Kunstler's pessimistic approach to most of the candidate technologies proposed for clean energy generation. His dismissal of fuel cells as a mere energy carrier, for example, doesn't take into account the potential of hydrogen generation by solar and wind systems during non-peak hours. And in his talks he likes to needlessly scare his audiences with slides of horse-drawn traffic. But when it comes to railways, he's right on the money.

Imagine the technological advances that a serious effort at electrifying our rail lines and building efficient engines would bring. The jobs it would mean, and the impact on urban planning would be staggering, but welcome. It won't be easy, of course, and there will be plenty of opposition.

"It's a matter of getting a huge ship like the American transportation industry to change direction," said Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which lobbies for more subsidies for Amtrak. (Reuters, again)

But politicians that have the foresight and courage to support more passenger rail should be rewarded this fall, and opponents punished. That means Obama, who wants to increase Amtrak funding, should be the favored candidate of rail advocates, and McCain, who in the past has blocked such attempts, should be shunned.

Attention should also be paid to members of Congress. The House just passed a veto-proof $15 billion Amtrak funding bill. It's a start. A very small start.


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I found a very telling comment about how people in the US see trains when the TGV high speed train set its record at 574.8 km/h (159.6 m/s, 357.2 mph) in 2007.
One of the (I think /.) commenters had this to say : "Waow, there must have been a lot of smoke". The ability to move people very fast on tracks using electricity was unknown to this commenter.

It is always a joy, when arriving in Paris, to cruise at 300km/h along a highway where cars trail at 130km/h...

Not to mention that it will get you yet another topic of conversation besides the weather. I lived in the UK (NW-Wales) for 3 years and my only means of transportation was by bicycle, bus or train, and I was *still* able to get around to wherever I wanted. Efficient public transportation is something I miss in the US.

While good rail passenger service is highly desirable, it's going to be very difficult to achieve. Since almost all of the existing tracks are now owned by freight railways and that business is growing again, the railways will fight against passenger traffic that slows and disrupts freight traffic due to federal laws giving passenger trains the right of way. It will be necessary to provide major federal aid for additional parallel mainline tracks in order to get cooperation from the railways.

Not to mention that expanding and improving efficiency of freight railways can vastly reduce the amount of freight hauled by relatively inefficient diesel trucks.

I have been ranting and raving about this very issue of public transportation for over two years now, and you are the first person I've seen actually write about it.


I agree that we desperately need decent rail travel. As it is now, AmTrak is a Northeastern phenomenon. There are what they quaintly call "passenger trains" that travel between some major cities outside the NE, but it's as if AmTrak was actively discouraging rail travel. A trip from Atlanta to St. Pete involves a side trip to Washington, DC, and a trip to Denver also lets you spend hours looking at station walls in Washington and Chicago. It takes longer by train than by car, and the cost is (was) higher than airline travel. I took a train trip once from Santa Fe (NM) to LA and it was great. About half a day late, but lots of fun. But in the US outside the NE, one travels by train only if one wants the train-riding experience, is in no hurry, and doesn't mind significant inconveniences in schedules.

I have long felt that one of the best things we could do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to bring back railways as a primary form of transportation as an alternative to both cars and airplanes. Of course, to do that, passenger and freight rail would have to run on separate tracks. A lot of existing lines are already too congested as they are. The Northeast Corridor, for one, is much too crowded freight, express, and commuter lines share just four tracks, and there are frequent delays when one train has to wait for another with higher priority.

This isn't a complaint about freight trains, by the way. I think we need a lot more of them, too.

I'm not so sure train travel is more expensive than airlines. The current advance purchaes fare on the Southwest Chief is $50 which is slightly less than Southwest Airlines. But here the similarities end. Amtrak allows three checked bags, boxes, suitcases, whatever in addition to your carryon which by the way can be a small coller stocked with cheap sodas, teas, and snacks from the Price Chopper and not $10 sandwiches from an airport concessionaire. Electronic devices, some train cars even have plug ins and you can even use the cellphone (and internet) for most of the trip. Want to get up from your spacious seat and take a stroll. Packed like fishin worms and not sardines. I'll take Amtrak hands down for the KC-Chi run.

A few upgrades (directTV, better facilities) and they could deal the death blow to the airlines for short and medium range transportation.

Maybe 6 years ago, i took the family from Michigan to California. I wanted to do a round trip by train, but could not afford it. So, we flew to Calif, and took the train back. Note: it wasn't a matter of time. The one way flight out cost a third of the trip back. And, the airlines really socked us for only doing one way. A big part of the train expense was that we had two nights in a sleeper car.

My modest 4 door sedan is getting 44 MPG. At $4/gal, that's 11 miles per dollar. I consider two trips a summer at about 550 miles each way - that's 1,100 miles total, or $100 in gas. And, it's $100 by myself or for four people and a 17' canoe. It's hard to compete against that by air, train or bus.

We think of gas as expensive. But when i was a kid, a postage stamp was $0.04, and gas was $0.27/gal. So, mail has gone up by 11x, and gas has gone up by 14x. In the mean time, car fuel economy has gone from 15 MPG to 44 MPG. So i see the car as cheaper, not more expensive. Yes, i understand that this isn't all there is to economics.

You don't get 44 MPG? Why the hell not? I bought my car used - 5 years old, the blue book value was $1400. This is so cheap, you could have one as an additional vehicle. I've put 70,000 miles on it. Very reliable. It's got a 1.9 liter engine with a 5 speed manual. Don't know how to drive a stick? Why the hell not? It's not rocket science. Modern manuals are easy. Then keep your speed under 65 MPH. Use a cruise control for consistency and comfort.

With current tech - diesel engine, turbo, etc., my car could get 75 MPG. But no one offers such a beast. Why not?

I'm a little late to this thread, but its great news that Amtrak will get a much needed shot in the arm, although its still far too little.

I took trains around the States almost 20 years ago (if you want to see America, flying is quicker, but you don't see much of it), and was really impressed by the Amtrak operation (it was BR in the UK at the time). OK, so I was about 8 hours late going from Chicago to SF, but if Amtrak owned its own track, then there would be less snarlups. Trains should be a key factor in any transport plans for the next century, and will use less cash than simply pandering to the car/air lobbies.

As for cakehead's excellent idea about taking on the airlines on many routes, they already do in many parts of Europe, and I have no idea why someone would choose to travel via Heathrow and Charles De Gaulle when they could go by Eurostar (apart from cost, which if oil prices stay they way they are, might well seem much more reasonable). The times are about 4 and half hours by plane, or 3 hours (ish) by Eurostar… (and the train times include taxis, etc)