Saturday, April 11, 2009

Too Little, Too Late - Hope Not

A frightening theme runs through much of the current rail-oriented media. (That would be rail mags, news articles, and editorial comment.) It's frightening if you are looking forward to the rebirth of Passenger Rail. Summed up in six words: We may have waited too long.

Even with the public and even the private sector interested in funding new and expanding rail projects, here are the problems from bottom to top.

1. The rebirth of rail hasn't discouraged the NIMBYs and the environmentalists. This will mean that acquisition of land (right of way) for any rail project will be more costly and take longer than ever before in United States history. In fact, I recently read an editorial reply where the environmentalist writer, in arguing against a new line, suggested that light rail is no more fuel efficient than the private auto. As the global warming people like to say: The facts are in and the science is settled. Both arguments are wrong, but that won't stop this guy. I would rather live next to a busy railroad than to a freeway or airport, but perhaps that's just me.
2. For reasons of safety regulations, general risk, materials, labor, and advancing technology, the tracks that go on those rights of way are more costly than ever before. Many miles of old track will have to be replaced, many miles have already been torn out, and freight rail is scrambling in some parts just to get a second main back where there once were three or four main line tracks. Demand will drive up cost, or cause shortages in materials.
3. Speaking of materials, the domestic steel industry is in shambles. Yes it still exists, but nowhere is there the capacity to turn out the steel needed for a major expansion. Not just rails are needed, but steel for bridges, retaining walls, scaffolding, cranes, earthmovers, re-bar, and etc. on and on. We are already buying enough from our overseas suppliers.
4. We have two North American locomotive builders but no passenger car builders. Some, like Siemens and Bombardier (both not domestic companies) can and have come on line in short order to assemble cars. With freight car orders down, now would be the time to shift some of those manufacturers to the passenger cars of our future.
5. Signal systems, which even in their basic state increase line capacity and reduce risk and thereby cost, are also in a shambles. Amtrak alone operates on whatever signal and communications systems the host railroad has in place. Once relatively cheap electro- pneumatic or mechanical devices have become high-tech GPS-based systems with increasing incremental costs as well. Letting the old systems go to pot in many areas has not given us a step up in getting to the high-tech.
6. Reservations systems are operating on decades old software that has been modified and updated but is still based on concepts that came to us with the birth of the personal computer. They will continue to get integrated into the newer technology of cell phones and hand-held devices, but they will still be the old systems. New would be better, but is it too late to revamp the whole thing?
7. With the degradation of our Passenger Rail system has come the degradation of society in general. The acceptable has become the unacceptable and some people just won't know how to ride the modern equivalent of a Pullman sleeper and respect the peace and privacy of other passengers. And the threat of litigation and stepping on somebody's civil rights keeps rail employees from putting a stop to some of the worst abuses. With our airline-driven are-we-there-yet mentality, we just might not be ready, as a society, for the rebirth of Passenger Rail.

Does anyone disagree?
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