Friday, October 10, 2008

What About The Trains?

There is one thing that is basically being ignored by both campaigns that has been burning me up.

People who know me know I love trains, though my reasons for loving trains are usually misunderstood. I'm not a guy who has a train set in his basement where he spends his evenings. I have no model trains and I don't belong to any train or train hobby clubs. I'm not like Peter Dinklage from The Station Agent checking under a locomotive for the kind of trucks it has.

I do subscribe to Trains magazine and I rip through any kind of passenger rail and urban transit articles while kind of flipping through any of the stuff about coal cars, freight, cab signals, and most any other technical things that lots of train geeks love and I get a little bored by.

My love of them comes mostly from the fact that they are still the best way to move people that we have ever come up with. You can move more people on less energy than any other way, outside of pure human propulsion.

So it is killing me that nobody is talking about public transportation during this campaign.

There is a lot of talk about hybrid, plug-in hybrid, electric and fuel cells followed by the word "car."

You know, we have got to give up this fascination with individual transportation. There are a hell of a lot more environmental problems with cars than just greenhouse gasses. Cars are the most to blame for the disease known as suburban sprawl. We continue to expand the amount of land that is paved over, which leads to water run-off and polluted drinking water.

Beyond the environmental factors, let's not forget what the biggest cause of preventable death is in America or the main obstacle to quality of life in our cities. So little of any city's space is given over to pedestrians and bikes rather than cars. Even in New York, where we pride ourselves on our subway and how much we walk, we are squeezed in to sometimes very tiny sidewalks while the road next to us has 2 to 5 lanes for traffic and parking on both sides.

Riding a bike in pretty much any east coast city as an actual mode of transportation is a joke. If there are bike lanes people use them for double parking or deliveries.

But with all the talk about the energy crisis and the high price of gas I hear nothing about expanding the public transportation system outside of Biden's one remark that an Obama-Biden administration will be "friendly" to Amtrak.

A lot of talk about making cars run on different stuff (some of it, like ethanol, not any better for the environment than oil) but nothing about how to get people out of their cars altogether.

A massive investment in our local public transportation systems and our national rail network around the country could do so much for us. Bring down the cost of traveling, make our drinking water cleaner, control sprawl by focusing development around transportation instead of the other way around and save a lot of young lives as car accidents kill people under 30 more than anything else.

We could also get some of the clutter out of the sky by pulling people out of planes (the worst carbon footprint of all transportation methods) and onto a real high-speed rail network.

The economy could be helped as well. It has been said by many business groups that traffic congestion in cities causes billions of dollars of losses every year (I've read one estimate of $68 billion).

But we seem stuck on this idea of appeasing the people that need to have their own little capsules to get around. Ones that for some unknown reason we think is important that it can go from zero to 60 in 5 seconds.

We need a real plan to improve our transportation infrastructure. This is an incredibly mobile world we live in now, and I love it like that. But we need to stop doing it in the most inefficient ways we can find.

I guess my call for the candidates to talk about this more is really a call for Obama to talk about it more. McCain is hopeless since he has a long record of hostility to Amtrak and public transportation.

There is some hope. Congress just passed a bill called the Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act that Bush said he will sign, probably because it passed by veto-proof margins. The bill will include a doubling of Amtrak's current budget over the next five years as well as providing the start-up money for creating high-speed rail corridors.

This is encouraging. People are flocking to Amtrak in droves right now, and it is basically a crappy system. Imagine what they can do with a real budget and with, hopefully, smart management.

(One thing I do like about Biden as VP is that I think he'll have the biggest influence on choosing who gets to run Amtrak)

Congressman Jim Oberstar from Minnesota thinks they can have the first high-speed line between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul up and running in five years. That may be optimistic but that's the kind of thinking we need on this issue.

It's a start. We need to do more and we need to do it now. This is a lot better way to spend our money than giving some guys from Silicon Valley grants to try to invent a car that runs on hemp.


Anonymous said...

You've completely convinced me. How would you like to be my Transportation Secretary?

Verdant Earl said...

I knew this site was being read by the right people. Or left, as it were. ;)

Anonymous said...

LOL. wow you guys are so popular!

seriously, I was pretty excited when I was watching the high speed rail discussions on C-SPAN a few months back...

one thing i'm finding frustrating about many people is their limited thinking...many only see what has already been done as the only way to continue instead of thinking about what is possible (and needed).

that's not a criticism so much as it is an observation of an unfortunate reality that is not necessarily the fault of those who've been raised to just get by and just fit in and not dream big.

there are also many with fantastic, innovative imaginations but somehow we need to encourage EVERYONE to think beyond what they see as the only options in life...a la drill baby drill...

of course many decisions are financially motivated without concern for who or what is being negatively impacted.

and i don't think enough people are making the connection between their everyday choices, the demise of the environment, and how it will/or is impacting themselves, their families.

Deni said...

Couldn't have said it better myslef, MOC.

And yes Senator, I will absolutely be your Secretary of Transportation. :)

My dream job, really.

Anonymous said...

1. The infrastructure for rail transportation (outside of the eastern seaboard corridor Wash DC-Boston) is either in shambles or no longer existing. Constituents get all up in arms when ANY government subsidy is appropriated to Amtrak/ACELA--this is a reflexive reaction ('scuse the alliteration) to that "I don't need no government in my life" mentality we've instilled in our population since the McCarthy witch hunts in the 50s.

I love trains also, I was brought up using trains in my country, briefly while I lived there, and so I see nothing wrong with using them instead of automobiles or planes, even. I almost exclusively used Metro when I lived in Wash. DC--now that WMATA has extended Metro hours to 2 a.m. I see absolutely no reason to use cars to get in and out and about the city.

This infrastructure will never be re-built in our lifetimes...there are myriad bridges and other structures to be "got to" before Congress sinks in $$ to Amtrak and to re-building the railroad.

(Let's not forget rails can be used to move supplies, food, etc. and effectively put the 18 wheeler out of business. It's just slower, so the truckers hold the muscle in that dept.)

Anonymous said...

...and 2: there ain't no 2.