President Obama's proposal to spend $50 billion on transportation
infrastructure--including 4,000 miles of rail lines--couldn't be a better
expenditure of our federal tax dollars.
After spending two days on the Empire Builder, the long-haul Amtrak
line from Chicago to Seattle/Portland, I quickly realized that our
investment in trains should be readily and heartily embraced. And, if
more Americans were to take such trips, I'm sure they, too, would
choose trains as an alternative mode of travel.
Amtrak staff was courteous and responsive to passengers, a bit quirky
as train people can be, but absolutely delightful while we all traveled
the miles and hours together across the country. Riding the train,
especially on an overnight, was romantic and adventurous and we kept to
our schedule despite the numerous times we had to yield to freight
Actually, it's a miracle that Amtrak has lasted these past 40 years
since President Richard Nixon deliberately designed it for failure.
Different administrations--both Democratic and Republican--have either
ignored passenger rail or, like President George W. Bush, actively
sought to scuttle it.
James McCommons, author of Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service tells the story about Amtrak and America's relationship with
trains along with some great travelogues of his year-long train trips
around the country.
He points out that most legislators who vote on appropriations for
passenger trains have never ridden a train, which severely works
against Amtrak. Others have been adamant that Amtrak make a profit.
Truth is, there is no public transportation system in the world that earns a profit.
What is clear is that train networks serve as a means to an end,
namely, they contribute to an area's economic development, an idea that
is capturing the attention of more and more mayors across the country,
especially in this weak economy.
Actually, highways and airports are not money-makers either and the
federal government subsidizes them to the tune of $180 billion per
year. Amtrak only gets $1 billion. Unfortunately, many Americans don't
realize that a transportation network is one of the benefits of their
The reason that Amtrak has been short-sheeted is that passenger rail has simply not been a government priority.
After 100 years of moving people within our cities and around the
country, trains lost favor because people were sick of the rapacious
and corrupt conduct of the railroad corporations. The vehicles were
dirty and staff was rude or mean. Ridership had been steadily declining
since 1920. After World War II, the nation made a dramatic switch to
invest in highways because our roads were poor and lacked connectivity
and, well, people liked driving their cars. It didn't help that the
automobile, oil and tire companies conspired--or at least
lobbied--against the public transportation system for their own
interests as depicted in the 1996 PBS film, "Taken for a Ride" and its 2008 Part II version.
Promoted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Federal-Aid Highway Act
of 1956 required citizens to finance the Interstates by paying 15 to 20
percent of the price of a gallon of gas. The 46,876-mile Interstate
system took 35 years to complete and cost $128.9 billion. The feds
paid 90 percent of the cost or about $114 billion--$425 billion in 2006 dollars--
even though the Interstates were under the control of the states.
Governors and mayors signed onto this massive public works plan without
hesitation because they saw it as an economic development tool for
their cities. They would be proved wrong within a couple decades.
As more and more people needed and bought cars, they found themselves
stuck in more traffic jams and having to contend with endless road
repair. Operating an automobile amounted to $6,000 to $7,000 per year
(outside its purchase) and the accident and death rates related to
cars--at least 40,000 deaths per year--were overwhelming.
Building the Interstates in the cities also drastically changed urban
life, something Eisenhower never intended and experts never foresaw.
Neighborhoods were torn up to make way for the highways. Social
stratification and racial discrimination intensified as middle class
white people migrated to the suburbs and left poor people and minority
groups behind in the cities. Downtowns that were designed for
pedestrians became congested places and the influx of cars made them
frustrating to navigate. Old buildings were demolished to create
surface parking, which then created gaping, ugly holes in the
cityscape. People felt unsafe and increasingly reluctant to go
downtown. Retail moved out to the suburbs and the companies eventually
followed. Of course, all of this out-migration ended up depleting the
tax base and making ghost towns out of our once vibrant and prosperous
By the late 1990s transportation engineers and analysts began questioning the Interstate's "externalities" as they costed out pollution, energy waste, land disruption, accidents, time wasted in traffic jams.
They also learned that spending hundreds of millions of dollars to add
highway lanes and interchanges didn't relieve congestion.
The airlines tried to make up for their operational costs with reduced
legroom, poorer air quality and overcrowding. Greater demand for air
travel also necessitated building or expanding airports, which all
takes up a lot of tax dollars.
With the 1990s came new attitudes toward cities and toward the
environment. Young people and empty nesters found cities a "hip" place
to live and began moving back. They reduced their car usage and
demanded more public transportation options. People started a movement
to restore historic buildings and revitalize their downtowns.
Meanwhile, rail advocates were keeping Amtrak alive, albeit by a
thread. Among them was Gil Carmichael, a former highway lobbyist, owner
of five car dealerships and an airport charter service. He later
founded the Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of
Denver where he advocates for what he calls Interstate II.
Interstate II (https://www.texasrailadvocates.org/InterstateII.htm) involves double- or triple-tracking 20,000 to 30,000
miles of mainline freight railroads, establishing corridors for
high-speed trains and eventually electrifying the trains to replace
diesel engines. Carmichael estimates this could all be done in 20 years
for two cents on the motor fuel tax.
"We have this incredible railroad network that goes out all over this
land from city center to city center. That's what is so amazing. It's
already there," said Carmichael (in McCommons).
Another idea train advocates promote is the re-establishment of a
combined freight and passenger rail system through private-public
partnerships that work with state transportation departments.
Dedicated passenger lines have a multiplier effect that can relieve
traffic congestion, reduce freight bottlenecks, diminish flight delays,
reduce this country's carbon footprint and accommodate people without
cars or the means or desire to fly.
When Amtrak was created, politicians, lobbyists and fiscal
conservatives really wanted to deep-six passenger rail altogether
within two years. It was only through political wrangling and
arm-twisting that train advocates were able to save passenger rail by
separating it from freight and calling it Amtrak, the National Railroad
Passenger Corporation. That did not mean, however, that it would be
efficient, well-funded or make a profit despite Nixon's caveat that the
new railroad be off the government dole as soon as possible.
The United States has never had a vision for an integrated railroad
network nor has it adequately funded one, says John Gibson, vice
president of Operations Research and Planning at CSX (quoted in
McCommons). Instead, passenger rail has been a hit and miss enterprise
as Amtrak has tried to put its trains on networks owned and managed by
the freight companies.
Could there be a renaissance in trains? Yes, says McCommons, because as
the nation's population increases, as more people decide to lead urban
lives and as cities increase in density, it makes sense to use
rail--especially with energy costs expected to climb.
"In terms of efficiency--fuel savings, lower carbon outputs, smaller
footprint on the landscape--the advantage is really rail," said Anthony
Carbonell of the Lincoln institute of Land Policy in Cambridge (quoted
in McCommons). "It has been significantly underinvested in and
disadvantaged against the other modes. We once had good train service
in this country. We need to recover that capacity."
The Obama administration clearly sees the possibilities of rail and so
it gave Amtrak $8 billion in the stimulus package and another $1.3
billion for car rehabilitation and infrastructure repair on the
Northeast Corridor. Vice President Joe Biden, a well-known train buff
and consistent passenger during his senatorial days, obviously had a
lot to do with this boost for Amtrak.
This is all a good start but we still have a long way to go.
So, ride the train if you haven't already, and encourage others to ride
also, including your congressional representatives. It's a great way to
get this country back on track!