Monday, October 6, 2008

Disappearing Railroad Blues

This train got the disappearing railroad blues
Steve Goodman, “The City of New Orleans”

One image that recurs when you think of the West is the train—the transatlantic railway was an enormous factor in westward expansion, & thru the World War II years train travel was how folks got around the country.

Things have changed since then—under Eise
nhower, the interstate system came into being, & over the years air travel has changed from the privilege of the “jet set” to the common mode of long distance travel for most middle & working class folks.

Of course, there are problems with these ways of traveling—& this said by someone who has an admitted terror of flying, but who loves road trips (though I tend to favor blue highways, & try to find routes that avoid interstates as much as possible
). Of course, with gas prices rising, car travel just ain’t what it used to be; & (fear of flying aside), even folks I know who think no more of getting on a plane than I do of driving to town are telling me they’re pretty disenchanted with the flying experience these days—long lines, delays, cancellations (sometimes after sitting on the runway in the plane), missed connections, etc. etc.

& these aren’t the only factors going against travel by cars & planes. I realize that, for better or worse, there’s still some controversy here in the States about global warming. My question to the folks who don’t believe in it, or who minimize it, or who assert that humanity’s activity may only be adding some relatively small percent to a cli
mactic pattern beyond our control would be this: Even if there’s only a small chance that our activities are causing some cataclysmic, global problem, shouldn’t we be taking some drastic action to make sure that’s stopped? I mean, how much do we really want to gamble with destruction? People are afraid of economic ramifications, but face it—if even some of these scenarios turn out for real down the line, economic ramifications won’t really matter. Also, especially with the U.S. economy collapsing all around us, we might consider that re-tooling & developing new industries might actually put us in a much better position in the long run.

So where does train travel enter into the picture? Firs
t, it’s mass transportation, which should create less pollution/emissions overall than car travel given current vehicles (from what I understand, this may not be true with very fuel-efficient cars—say vehicles getting over 50 mpg—but most folks frankly aren’t driving those. Even in cities you see the Explorers & Suburbans & Dodge trucks & Hummers. Second, although air travel also is mass transportation, there seems to be evidence that train travel has less of an environmental impact than air travel. Surfing the web on this type of Google search will bring up varying opinions, so apparently this isn’t definitive. However, planes came in anywhere from having a bit more impact to having a lot more impact in most of the studies I looked at. One fact that was mentioned often: while emissions from trains & cars occur at ground level, emissions from planes occur in the upper atmosphere, & thus have a greater detrimental impact.

OK, I’m no scientist, & can’t claim to analyze this data. So let’s look at it from another angle. Lots of folks seem to be distressed (or just plain stressed) by the pace of life these days. Now it seems to me that a great cure for this is “slowing down”—you
know, when folks traveled by train, this country still seemed to get along just fine; of course, those of us on the north side of middle age always think things used to be better, but there’s something to be said for seeing a landscape when you’re traveling that includes things besides air terminals & clouds (not that I don’t like clouds in their place, which is above me).

Back in the day, even our very out-of-the-way corner of
Idaho had what amounts to commuter rail service—the PIN line, which I’ve written about elsewhere. If you look around online, you find all sorts of theories about why the U.S. has so drastically neglected passenger rail service—the airline lobby, the highway lobby, etc. One of the more cogent comments I saw came from a planner who claimed the biggest obstacle is our penchant for sprawl. Whereas European towns tend to be concentrated entities surrounded by green space, U.S. towns just keep spreading. You don’t even have to look to big cities for this. Boise has absorbed Eagle, & Meridian, & Nampa, & is on the verge of swallowing Star & Middleton. You have the urban landscape, then the suburban, & now “exurbia.” This type of chaotic sprawl favors the auto rather than mass transportation.

& then, quite frankly, Amtrak is a bit of a mess—though
I will say they have some of the best customer service I’ve ever run across (details are too long a story for this post). It’s hard to end up where you want to go, it’s expensive, it has problems keeping on schedule, & just as it may be difficult to reach a very specific destination, for some of us it’s hard to get to the darned train to begin with. If I want to travel Amtrak these days, I have to drive (or take a bus) about 8 hours south to Salt Lake, or do the same for slightly less time north to Spokane (obviously would choose the latter!) Now this is a shame because Boise was a railroad town, has a beautiful old depot (see pic), & was a stop on the Amtrak Pioneer Line—“was” because the Pioneer Line was discontinued in 1997; see link here. I’m very happy to see that the Idaho congressional delegation—folks with whom I rarely agree—may actually be doing something useful. Senator Mike Crapo included an amendment to last year’s Amtrak funding bill requiring a study for re-opening the Pioneer Line. Now studies are a long way from action, but for better or worse these days they are a necessary prelude if there’s gonna be action.

I’d encourage folks to let their political representatives know they support Amtrak & increased opportunities for train travel here in the U.S.

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