Saturday, April 26, 2014

Freight v. Passenger Rail

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The oil boom and consequential uptick in the number of "oil cans" on U.S. rails has illuminated a certainty I've observed for some time.  Basically, it's that passenger trains no longer get the priority they need to be a viable form of medium- to long-distance travel.  The exceptions are the tracks owned by Amtrak and commuter rail authorities, where the track owners can choose to give passenger trains priority.  Often they don't.  The problem is just going to get worse, as the feds have found out they can foist costs off on the states by blackmailing them with the loss of train service.  (See Southwest Chief in Colorado, New Mexico, and Kansas.)

I'm not arguing that freight should never get priority--far from it.  Seeing that freight rail is possible the most energy efficient way to move heavy loads anywhere on the planet (marine is most efficient where there is a waterway and a port), a robust freight rail system, with marketplace competition and free from burdensome regulation, is necessary for future economic success.  But passenger rail also approaches optimum efficiency for moving people.  What are we to do?

I've made no secret that I'm not a fan of High Speed Rail (HSR), but that's mainly because of the way America is going about it.  Piecemeal doesn't cut it.  At the current level of funding, Amtrak will turn into a fragmented, useless entity for anything but trains on the Northeast Corridor and some other Corridor trains.  Beyond those corridors and regional transportation agencies, passenger rail will disappear.

I do not now and never have given purchase to the argument that the federal government can't make enough cuts to fund something really important.  But, with the media in the corner of the politicians, it would take one helluva piece of investigative journalism pitched to the public by one helluva believable news personality to demonstrate that the wool has been pulled over our eyes for years.  Forever for younger folks.  Once we free up all that taxpayer money, put it into a real network of HSR.

The professional politicians will never let this happen.

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