Sunday, August 15, 2010

James McCommons' year-long train ride

Henry David Thoreau commented at length on the frequent interruptions of his day caused by the whistle, rumble, and hiss of steam-powered trains on the Fitchburg Railroad which passed not far from his house on Walden Pond. The railroad symbolized that commercial "getting and spending" world maligned by Wordsworth in his poem The World Is Too Much With Us .

How different the railroad seems to most of us 150 years hence! As I read James McCommons' compelling account of his year riding Amtrak, Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service, the memories came streaming in. In the little burg where I grew up just two blocks from my house trains passed every evening around bedtime. The low roar of the diesel locomotives and the syncopated clatter of the railway cars on the track, far from disturbing me, lulled me to sleep.

As a young boy there were overnight trips in sleeper cars on the Denver Zephyr, one leg in the family's annual journey to Colorado for a skiing vacation in places like Vail and Aspen, long before they became exclusive celebrity playgrounds. The observation car provided a geography lesson as the Great Plains gradually gave way to the Rocky Mountains in the dusky twilight. The dining car seemed as exotic as a circus act: A formal dinner in a moving vehicle, who thought of something as neat as that? At night the gentle rocking of the train made me sleep, well, like a baby.

Passenger trains still seemed glamorous and contemporary then. Yet with only 5 percent of the passenger market, they were already lurching toward oblivion.

But McCommons' book is not about the past, but about the future of passenger rail, right? In fact, it is about both. He seamlessly weaves the history of passenger rail in with his artful travelogues as he describes the scenery he sees, the people he meets, and the problems and joys he encounters during a year of train travel that covers nearly every major Amtrak route. These travelogues are an absolute pleasure to read. And, they provide an excellent window on the current state of passenger rail in America today. Frequently, McCommons takes train trips to meet people who are actively shaping passenger rail in the United States. That's the part of the book about the future.

In reading this book it helps to have fond memories of train travel for this predisposes you to look carefully for clues about what might be done to improve and expand service. It helps even more if you have occasion to ride Amtrak today as I do to reach Chicago or visit friends in Minnesota via the Empire Builder. But herein lies part of the problem. McCommons tells us that an astoundingly low proportion of Americans have ever been on an intercity train, less than 2 percent! Only 3 percent use light rail or commuter lines. It's hard to build sympathy for a mode of travel that most Americans have never experienced and may know only from movies or television.

Still, it is indicative of the hold trains have on the popular imagination that many routes have Wikipedia entries. How many airline routes have that! It is this appeal which provides some hope. After all, many of the Amtrak routes which remain today exist only because people in the localities served by those routes fought hard to keep them. Some of the stories are detailed in the book. And, when the Bush administration tried to destroy Amtrak by zeroing out its budget, Congress simply passed Amtrak funding by veto-proof majorities. People want passenger rail.

Now, comes the sticky part. An economist acquaintance of mine has tried to drill into me that we as a society should tax the things we don't want, and let the market sort out what should take their place. If we do that, then the government doesn't need to pick winners by subsidizing anything. In fact, he insists, if the U. S. government would stop subsidizing highway travel, that is, if people were forced to pay the true cost of driving on highways, they would soon flock to rail and that rail would be privately financed because it would be profitable.

He may be right, but I am a realist. I don't think we will ever get a chance to find out if his system would work. Societies have always considered transportation as simply too important to be left to the marketplace--from the roads of the Roman Empire all the way to today's newest airports. And, so perhaps the critical point that McCommons' book makes is that if we want passenger rail to thrive in America, we as a society will have to pay for it. Passenger rail will never be profitable in the narrow sense that businesses are. But it will be vastly profitable to society by other measures: energy efficiency; national cohesion; private development associated with transit; and the comfort, aesthetic pleasure, and sociability that trains offer over other types of transport.

That means we need to focus on making passenger rail so attractive that people will abandon their cars because they think that taking the train is a better idea. And, to do that we will have to invest far more in passenger rail than we do today.

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