Sunday, July 13, 2008

What We Should Have Done - No. 1

The decline of the passenger train in the United States did not come as a shock to anyone.

Just as it should be obvious to anyone today that the passenger airliner is on the ropes, so it was clear in the early 1950s that Passenger Rail would not survive the private passenger auto. The precipitous drop in rail travel numbers after World War II should have engendered a national transportation policy that included saving the trains.

The National Defense Highway system, subsequently the Interstate Highway system, was first and foremost supposed to be a device to enhance national security. Yes, troops and equipment could move fast by rail, and had moved faster by rail during the war than they had ever before. But our Government foresaw that war materiel could move faster on a system of limited-access highways.

Instead, what our Government should have done was establish a national defense transportation policy - a policy whereby private citizens, commerce and industry, and Government and the military could be assured that, no matter what the disaster, all would have access to the transportation necessary to their needs.

While establishing a route system for the highways, the Government should have been identifying essential passenger routes for all modes of transport and weighing the cost benefits against what would happen if one or more of those modes became undesirable or unuseable for reason of some national emergency.

Instead our money went into a distinctly inferior system of highways that ultimately saddled us with spiraling maintenance costs and accelerating depreciation precisely BECAUSE we did not establish balanced and well-considered policy towards other modes of transport. And it did this while using public money to effectively cut many communities off from both motor commerce and passenger rail. (Count the number of communities that any Interstate bypasses by looping around them, and see how many of these still have Amtrak service.)

The unheeded and nonetheless inevitable decline in the railroads' passenger service during the next 15 years certainly was not headed off. And Amtrak, instead of being well-considered policy, was instead a political stopgap. What happened with the creation of Amtrak - saving a few routes for political and popular expediency - was nothing like what should have been done a decade or two before. It was an emergency measure that did ALL modes of passenger transport a disservice. To say nothing of what it did to We The People.

Next time, No. 2.

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


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