Sunday, April 27, 2008

Passenger Rail and The Traveler

Strange bedfellows? Yes, in this day and in this century and on this continent.

In North America, in the twenty-first century, and by most people, Passenger Rail is considered an anachronism. It's something your parents or grandparents - or great-grandparents - used. It has no utility beyond the museum exhibit and the tourist railroad.

Even in major cities with light rail and heavy rail commuter networks, it is not the transportation of choice for most people. If you look at the numbers, there are far more people who look at Passenger Rail as one of the following:
1. A good way to keep traffic off the streets during rush hour.
2. A deep hole into which your sales-tax or gas-tax money is thrown.
3. Not really Passenger Rail but some sort of people mover that just happens to involve tracks and trains.
Far more, that is, than actually ride the trains.

In the northeast, and little by little, people are starting to see Passenger Rail as the first choice for travel. The melt-down of the airlines and the degeneration of service from all air carriers - one that mimics the plight of Passenger Rail in the late 1960s, will probably bring more people to think of Passenger Rail as the first choice. More, that is, if there is actually Passenger Rail to choose.

We are at a turning point in the history of Passenger Rail in the United States. Other modes including the personal automobile will fail to deliver the quality we expect in the years ahead. For road transport, this will be so because of the price of fuel, but more so because of the scarcity of good roads that aren't occupied by freight - that is: Trucks. For air transport it will be because of the selective mismanagement of the airlines that again mimics the selective mismanagement of the struggling rail systems of the 1960s. (What a way to attract passengers! Start taking away amenities and charge more!)

Passenger Rail won't suffer so much because it still relies on good old free enterprise to some extent. The rails and ways that guide it will continue to be maintained and invested in by private enterprise for the foreseeable future. If we can just make sure that everyone who wants to choose the train has that option, we will be more than halfway there.

The United States has transportation so hamstrung by the mish-mash of government invervention and non-intervention that fares or user costs will probably never ever reflect the actual cost of transportation as delivered to the end-user. It would be nice if it could, because then we would have the modes competing on a level playing field and Passenger Rail (and freight rail for commodities) would win hands down. Unfortunately, our liberalized and socialized government will not be able to resist putting massive infusions of cash into failing air carriers (a subsidy) in the same way that it always resists putting subsidies into Passenger Rail.

We would like to see the unsubsidized approach, but it will never happen. So as a consumer of transportation services and as a citizen we resist the all-government approach and thank God for happy mediums.

We need to reach one soon on the transportation front. Otherwise we will all have to stay home and tend our solar panels, and travel - as a leisure activity and as a tool of trade - will be dead.

©2008 - C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com

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