Thursday, April 05, 2007

please, please let Congress be smart about this

An op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times led me to learn about the proposed Lautenberg–Lott bill, S. 294, which since January 16 has been in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Its purpose, in short, is to improve the state of Amtrak (see Wikipedia article for more information) so that it can provide better public transport. I am a strong believer in public transportation, and the U.S. is far behind Europe in providing good, regular, comfortable train travel. Service between major cities has spotty coverage. As for high-speed trains (defined as reaching speeds of at least 125 mph on conventional rails), France has the TGV between multiple major cities, but the U.S. has only Amtrak’s Acela route from Boston to Washington, D.C. (Seems like the best place to start, but only a start.) From a technological point of view, the TGV broke its own speed record just this week, at 574.8 kph (357.2 mph), while the Acela putters along at a top speed of 150 mph. Now, the U.S. is a larger country than France, and it’s arguable that Americans need to travel by airplanes more often. But for distances less than 400 miles (not quite the length of the Acela line), once one accounts for all the trouble of getting through airports, train travel takes about the same amount of time; it’s also consistently cheaper and less stressful. (The distance from Paris to Marseille is about 485 miles; the TGV covers that in three hours, and the train stations in Paris and Marseille are both closer to the center of town than the airports are. Three hours is the time it takes me to drive the 200 miles from Memphis to Nashville.)

The two major forms of transport in the U.S. right now seem to be automobiles and airplanes. Both have their uses—cars for very short distances, planes for long. As I began arguing in the previous paragraph, trains fulfill a vital intermediate role. (I could also talk about the importance of good intra-city public transport, i.e., city buses, but let me deal with one level at a time.) Trains seem to have been long out of favor with many Americans, but several concerns have recently underscored their importance: pollution and fuel availability at the level of cars, and security at the level of planes. All reports on last year’s train travel show that it was a record year in terms of income and number of passengers.

What would happen if a luxury six-hour train ride for the 720-mile trip from New York to Chicago appeared, for less than the cost of a plane ticket? (Taking into account intermediate stops, that would just barely be a high-speed rail trip.) The shortest flights last from two to two and a half hours, and with the needs to arrive early at the airport, to pick up luggage afterwards, and to deal with airport pedestrian and vehicular traffic, plus the fact that you’re sitting on a plane for (at least) three hours, not the most comfortable place to be, you see that such a train ride becomes very appealing.

On a less grandiose scale, what if I could go from visiting my parents in Memphis to my brother in Nashville via train instead of driving? When I’m with one or the other, I’m not likely to need the extra car that driving to my destination would provide. Gas prices now mean that trip by car costs me $50, and there’s no reason a train shouldn’t cost less than that. So why would I want to drive? (Incidentally, there’s currently no Amtrak service to Nashville at all.) I could take the bus, and I have, but a train would be more expedient, and use less fuel (at least, if it runs on electricity as most European trains do). Plus, trains don’t get stuck in traffic.

… except when they do. One of the major points of the op-ed piece to which I referred at the beginning is that too many passenger trains are getting delayed by freight trains. Apparently the current legal code provides “preference” for passenger trains over freight trains, but in such a way that’s nearly impossible to enforce. I was fortunate not to have such a problem on the overnight train I took from Memphis to Chicago last December, but as I was searching for the ticket, I definitely saw warnings on Amtrak’s website that trips might be signficantly delayed on certain routes due to freight movement. Part of the Lautenberg–Lott bill would provide oversight of passenger train performance, and give greater authority to the Surface Transportation Board for handling priority disputes, for purposes of improving performance. I doubt train travel will become popular until it is demonstrably more reliable than air travel (“as reliable as” won’t be sufficient), so I strongly approve of any measures to improve performance.

It’s interesting to me that this issue came up in the news right now, because during our recent travels Hannah and I were discussing how great it would be if the U.S. had a train system like France’s or Switzerland’s. (Not Italy’s; that one is substantially dirtier, less comfortable, and less reliable. We may already have them beat in quality, although not likely in amount of service.) It’s clear to me that no effort to increase and improve train travel in the U.S. will succeed without either government support (Amtrak itself was created by Congress, and is essentially run by the government) or the participation of some already-existing large transportation company (such as airplane manufacturers, which would otherwise have strong reason to act against the interests of train travel). I hope today’s practical, social, and visionary forces will bring about this much-needed balance in American public transport.

(Also check out the National Association of Railroad Passengers:

(Should I also point out that Lautenberg is a Democrat, Lott a Republican, and the rest of the bill’s co-sponsors also include a mix of senators from both parties? That’s even more heartening, given how sharply divided most issues have been recently.)


Luke said...

Amtrak is a fair bit better in California, with decent train lines and connecting bus systems. Part of that might be because they need to ship the produce from the area. I was appalled at not being able to get an amtrak connection to Ithaca when I first moved out here. They don't even have a coordinated feeder bus system from Syracuse (closest station).

I'd like to see an improved train infastructure as well. We'll see where this goes.

Roxann said...

Nothing to do with the trains, although I read your post with interest and agree- improving the train system in the US would be a fabulous thing.

Being a math geek and a singer, I suspect you may enjoy this video:
Finite Simple Group (of order two)