Monday, February 27, 2006

So It Has Come To This

Reading just a small selection of the hundreds of articles about passenger rail that are available worldwide on the Internet, I am sobered by one realization: On what appears to be a global scale, western civilization is back to building short segments of passenger rail for limited populations with very selective end points and service areas.

We are back where we were in the United States and England in the middle 1800s. It was a time when few railroads had enough resources to be more than local, and the ones that were bigger became only regional. The dream of a transcontinental system with long distance routes was decades ahead. Each route struggled for its existence and had no future without the prospect of interchange with other routes.

Today, the remnant of our post-World War II passenger systems it itself in shambles. The Federal position on Passenger Rail is that the states or regional transportation authorities should handle the cost. Though there is resistance, the evolution of commerce requires that regions and local governments that want Passenger Rail take the pragmatic course of action and begin planning for it. This is resulting in local and regionally viable systems. Viable, though, only to the extent that they receive tax dollars from a willing public.

Though it is always impossible to predict the result of a trend except in generalities, the result of this is likely to be a passenger system similar to what the United States had in the 1800s. Small local carriers will reach out to nearby suburbs and to close urban center. For example, Chicago will probably be able to hammer out a system that includes passenger service to St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis and, perhaps Cincinnati and Kansas City. Albuquerque, without the population density and financial resources, will reach only as far as its nearest urban neighbors.

Regional carriers probably won’t get too much larger. The Northeast will probably have a dense but complicated network, just as it does today. California will maintain a passenger system centered on the state with a density of service similar to what California had in the last half of the 1800s.

In a decade or two, perhaps three, as regionals absorb local routes and spread out to include additional urban centers, there will be a hue and cry for consolidation of passenger service and the revival of transcontinental, single carrier service. I hope I am alive to see this. But whether this will be practical will depend on two things.

The first will be the willingness of those holding the purse to understand that long distance passenger service will never be self-supporting. As a business, it will always have to be subsidized by some other kind of business or by tax dollars.

The second will depend on whether there are still a set of assholes in the government who don’t recognize the benefits of Passenger Rail.

One thing I am sure of. Steel wheels on steel rail will always be one of the most efficient forms of transportation available.

And the beat goes on.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -
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