Sunday, December 28, 2008

Passenger Rail Is Not Always The Answer

Much as I would like it to be, Passenger Rail isn't the answer to every transportation question. As I often push for more Passenger Rail in this blog using an argument that it is sound policy from both a conservation and an environmental standpoint, I would like to be careful not to push too much.

As Mr. Obama's presidency nears and we are every day promised dollars for public infrastructure projects, some local politicians are taking their heads out of their arses only long enough to see the dollar signs. Yes, they have heard that trains are sound policy, so if there's anywhere they can put one, they are going to ask for money for it.

So a little education while you guys aren't busy watching your own colons:

1. Light rail only is a good idea only for large cities. I am talking cities the size of Milwaukee or better, not those on the borderline of "medium to small." The economies will just never catch up with the initial cost and the burden of subsidy. Mayors who want this and get it will be ruining their economies unless they have a dedicated line in mind, say from one airport to another.
2. Commuter rail is usually a little less costly for right-of-way and more costly for equipment. It, too, makes no sense for a small city with small ridership. New Mexico Rail Runner Express is not really commuter rail any longer, it is state sponsored intercity (Santa Fe - Albuquerque - Belen) with no help from Amtrak. It will leave a burden of subsidy too large for a low pop state like New Mexico to bear. If it has to go belly up, it will be money down a rathole.
3. Long distance Passenger Rail only makes sense on a more frequent basis than Amtrak can provide at this time. Amtrak has gone into the commuter business to find money, and it does a good job in the northeast, midwest, and California. But there's no local government seeking stimulus money for an Amtrak route, so Amtrak won't benefit from this unless local government seeks infrastructure improvements that will facilitate Amtrak.

Is anybody listening?

© 2008 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, December 21, 2008

No Cure From Amtrak

Something that Amtrak has not been able to cure in all of its three decades plus of existence is the public perception that the days are numbered for the train. I'm talking about any train.

Throughout the decade preceding Amtrak, those of us old enough to remember will recall that news of one or another passenger train's demise came out almost weekly. Unless you were a train nut trying to get mileage that would become unavailable onto your log book, you weren't very enthusiastic about riding a train that you knew wouldn't be there in the very near future. It was a protective reaction, really, because you knew that if you liked it you would be sad not to do it again, and if you didn't like it, it was probably because you waited too long to try it.

The same thing has been going on throughout the Amtrak era. There is always a rumor of a certain train in danger of discontinuance, and the press makes no bones about putting it out there when it's just a rumor. Some of this has got to stop if Passenger Rail is going to grow and if public confidence is going to grow with it. Amtrak should spend some new money on public relations initiatives that will tell the public, not just the train nuts that watch for the info, like me, what is in store for them if things go right. What new trains can we expect? How will this help my life and how will this help the country and the environment?

Today, even the reporting and the editorial slant for potential new trains is in the negative. It's about what might go wrong, how horrendously large is the needed money, or how it's just a "study" that will cost lots and no train is likely to result.

As a society, we are now conditioned to breath a sigh of relief when things don't go too wrong. So we don't expect to hear about what could go right. We rejoice over $2 gas, we turn handsprings when the train schedule doesn't get cut back, we thank God and Southwest Airlines that somebody still gives us peanuts during a long flight. It's ridiculous, and we should all expect more.

Wouldn't it be a lot more fun to rejoice over Amtrak doubling its route structure and its on-board amenities? And somebody at Amtrak needs to get their head out of whatever dark hole its up and start to let the public know how good things could be, not just how bad they could get.

I look forward to it.

©2008 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Political Momentum

Big Ideas aren't going to get done with the kind of thinking that exists in our legislative branch today. And they won't get done with the kind of thinking that is scheduled to exist tomorrow.

Political momentum says that Congress will continue to think along the lines of "no new Passenger Rail lines unless states or local governments put in the money." That's not going to work, and that is no longer a Big Idea. It was a good way to keep Amtrak moving when states were flush with cash, but that's not going to happen for the foreseeable future. Call it momentum or call it a head in the sand. Call it what you will, our newest congressmen and senators, as well as the re-elected ones, are going to have to stop thinking like we are going back to a Clintonian White House. The economy is already dictating that the rest of this decade is going to be very different from the 1990s.

As much as Radical Environmentalism - as a movement - is against the free market, neither will it want to see us slide back into a transportation policy where the only way to get somewhere is by passsenger auto or jet-fuel guzzling airlines. And the auto fleet will be aging - therefore less environmentally friendly - if none of us can afford to buy a new one.

As I have said before on this blog, our transportation policies must be coordinated and include a higher proportion of funding for Passenger Rail. This must also occur with any economic stimulus plans. Mr. Obama, please listen: If we are going to put people to work ala 1930s style WPA, it must be on building and repairing rail infrastructure as well as other kinds, and maybe even on building railcars, streetcars, and locomotives, too. (GM should not have sold Electro Motive is a topic for another day.)


Thank you all for your very astute comments and emails on my Big Ideas title. Now please write to your politicians - all of them - from the local know-nothings on up.

© 2008 - C. A. Turek -