Saturday, January 29, 2011

Environmental credit where it's due

Updated One good thing Obama offered in the SOTU was a continued commitment to high-speed passenger rail. In particular, he proposed to have 80% of Americans have access to that form of travel within 25 years.

The proposal, however, worthy as it is on its own merits, is not without its difficulties and shortcomings and I'm not referring to financial or technological problems but problems in the proposal itself. The central one is inherent: Its focus is on the glitzy toys of 220-mph trains running in high-traffic areas rather than on building and maintaining an actual nationwide intercity mass-transit system; that is, a national modern railroad system. The National Association of Railroad Passengers put it more delicately but with the same botton-line point:
“The National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) pledges to support the President’s visionary plan for high-speed rail” said Ross Capon, president of NARP. “And we are asking the President—along with the rest of the nation’s leaders and transportation officials—to work towards expanding the existing intercity passenger rail network to give 100 percent of Americans access to reliable, modern train service.”
The real goal, that is, should not be 80% having access to high-speed trains but 100% having access to good trains.

The other problem is a bit more subtle but still quite real: Focusing on high-speed rail actual undermines rather than advances that broader goal. What's envisioned is a relatively few regional hubs with rail lines reaching out like spokes to other cities in the region, an arrangement whose primary purpose seems to be making it more convenient for business travelers than taking planes. It proposes, that is, to enhance regional train travel at the expense of long-distance train travel. Want to go from Milwaukee to Chicago? You're cool; take the train. Want to go from Boston to Chicago? Um, yeah, you're still gonna fly.

Over the long term, the idea, supposedly, is to link those hubs into a single network, but the economic and environmental questions of completely revamping our rail system just to do the regional hubs are so great that anyone who thinks that we can skip the long-distance trains and get back to them later - especially when the criterion is "better than flying" - is dreaming. In fact, I think that is so obvious that I have trouble believing those pushing for high-speed rail don't see it.

A related point is that we have been here before. This is very similar to the notion advanced by the Shrub gang back in 2005-2006 and again in 2007-2008 as part of its attempts to dismantle Amtrak, just without the panache of high-speed rail: They proposed to break it into a series of disconnected regional lines. And then as now, the primary concern seems to be how to get business travelers from one place to another in the shortest time.

There's another "same as it ever was" aspect to this: The Shrub gang wanted to "split off" the Northeast corridor, which would effectively wreck the system. Now we have this:
Sitting beneath the famous zodiac mural of Grand Central’s main concourse, with the rumble of commuters and trains in the background, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held its first field hearing of the new session this morning. The topic was the future of high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor.

Chairman John Mica led the committee’s Republicans towards what appears to be their emerging message on high-speed rail: they’re for it, so long as it’s built through public-private partnerships and largely limited to the dense Boston-Washington corridor.
While I'm tempted to think that this is because it's the line these people are the most likely to use, I think the real reason is more fundamental: The Northeast corridor was and remains Amtrak's only profitable long-distance line. So of course private industry, which abandoned passenger rail, which deliberately drove it into the ground to justify doing so, now that government has proven this line can be run profitably which of course we can't have, we can't have the government being able to do anything well, of course private industry is to be brought in as a "partner." Of course it's time for another "public-private partnership," which generally means, as here, public investment and private profit.

In fact, the comparison with the Bush years is even closer, as some voices want to throw the whole thing into private hands. One is the US High Speed Rail Association, which wants the Northeast corridor privatized. In an interview with Fox Business, Andy Kuhns, president of the group, said:
We're pushing for some private companies to come in and run the trains but we do need the new infrastructure to get the high-quality trains that are comparable to Europe and Japan.
Which rather blatantly translates to "Government, you do the work and pay the price to make it convenient; corporations, you take the profit."

Besides the obvious GOPpers and other right-wingers, the voices included former Pennsylvania governor (and Rachel Maddow favorite) Ed Rendell, who said
the federal government could lease the operational rights to a private company or sell the assets completely.
So even before any proposal is formally made by the White House, there is already bipartisan agreement that the future of public rail - isn't public. Not when there's a buck to be made.

Not everyone agrees, happily. Representative Nick Rahall, ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee,
said in his opening statement that a national rail network ought to remain the focus. “After all,” the West Virginia Democrat said,” it was a national vision that led to the creation of the world’s most advanced highway and aviation networks.”
He had already reacted to the SOTU by saying he
supports Obama’s call for more high-speed passenger rail spending as long as Amtrak, the U.S. long-distance passenger railroad, doesn’t get left behind.
Which is exactly the risk I see and that the NARP hinted at.

(Rahall, by the way, was a cosponsor of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act a couple of years ago, which provided some stable funding for Amtrak for the first time by providing around $7.5 billion over five years. “Americans, especially West Virginians, love their railroads,” he said.)

Long-time readers here will likely know that I'm one of those who loves the trains. Not only do I agree with the old Cunard line ad slogan "Getting there is half the fun" or at least it damn well should be, I agree with the travel writer (link misplaced) who said the best way to see the US is from the windows of a train. I say it as I have before: When you fly, you see clouds. When you drive, you see pavement. When you take the train, you see scenery. And yeah, I do walk the walk: I've logged something over 35,000 miles on Amtrak and we're planning another trip.

Amtrak has been a whipping boy of the right ever since it was created, so much so that it has a bad reputation as an inefficient boondoogle - a reputation, while not entirely undeserved in the early years, is now held mostly by people who have never ridden it.

What's not well-known even among its fans, though, is that it was never intended to succeed. In fact, it was set up to fail. How, you ask? Simple: The (claimed) idea was that Amtrak would, after a couple of years of declining subsidies, break even and "stand on its own." But that was a fool's errand and everyone involved either knew it and didn't care, didn't know it and didn't care, or knew it and looked forward to the failure.
[Amtrak] has struggled ever since it was formed," said John Spychalski, a transportation expert and professor of supply chain management at Pennsylvania State University.

He said Amtrak has been systematically starved of investment over the years and subject to unrealistic expectations that it could somehow get up on its own feet and become a profitable enterprise. "You cannot operate intercity rail service at a profit," he said.

Some individual lines may make money "above the rail," excluding the cost of basic infrastructure and maintenance, but "there is no way those systems as a whole are going to make money on passenger traffic," he said.
In fact, there is hardly an example any time anywhere in the world where intercity passenger rail has made money "above the rail" and none have done so when the other costs are considered. Amtrak was set up to be a failure.

But it has survived. Just barely sometimes, scraping by, but it has survived because it has proved sufficiently popular - increasingly popular, it would appear, as ridership was up 14% in November over the year before - that the wingnuts have been unable to kill it. Like the man said, "Americans love their railroads." The very fact that it has survived, it has done better than was expected, that it has even improved, is precisely why the wackos of the right hate it and why they are again trying to kill it. As part of its maniacal plan to slash government spending, the Republican Study Committee has proposed
eliminating federal subsidies for Amtrak ($1.6 billion annually), the Transportation Department's New Starts program for commuter rail and rapid transit systems ($2 billion annually), and all grant programs for intercity and high-speed rail ($2.5 billion annually).
So it's not good enough to spin visions of bullet trains and 220-mph trains getting you from one city to another faster than you can read your paper while at the same time failing to openly and aggressively support long-distance public rail as well as regional public rail. Not when the real system we already have is under threat.

Let me be clear: Obama's support for high-speed rail can't be doubted. Remember that the stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, included $8 billion for related projects around the country, an investment which is already starting to show results in a number of those areas. I have no doubt he is sincere in his desire for the "80% access to high-speed rail" goal.

But high-speed is not the only issue here and, putting it perhaps overly-colorfully, in considering mass rapid transit we shouldn't - in fact we can't, we dare not - put all the emphasis on the "rapid" to the detriment of the "mass."

Updated with a Footnote: Coincidentally, the day before this was posted the Wrexham & Shropshire line, which since 2008 had run trains from Marylebone Station in London to the town of Wrexham in northern Wales, closed down despite getting extraordinarily high ratings from its riders. What makes this relevant is that the line was one of three in the whole of the UK that ran without a government subsidy - and despite the high approval ratings, the company that ran it felt there was no chance it could be made profitable.

Which just goes to show yet another time that if you want to have an environmentally-friendly, efficient, intercity mass rapid transit system - that is, a modern railroad - you have to have public investment. Which is one of the reasons right-wingers hate it.


Anonymous said...

First, define "accessible". Do you mean, " a train station within walking distance of every home"? Dude! They're called "roads"!

Or, do you envision "a train in every town and village"? Or, what?

Look, even communications companies have given up trying to link remote homes to the Internet and cable TV...the so called "last mile"...because of it's expense.

Maybe the preliminary goal ought to be to connect "every city over 1,000,000 population" with regular speed rail that would be designed for both freight and passenger service.

That ought to create endless jobs for consultants and union workers as they spin their wheels forever, trying to snake rails through densely developed neighborhoods agains fierce opposition.

LarryE said...

Your comment jumps around so much that I'm going to have to reply point by point rather than overall.

- "Accessible" is a standard term serving the same purpose as "reasonable" in laws. It's not precise nor is it intended to be and I will not get bogged down in those kinds of details, which quite appropriately will come later.

- Within walking distance? Sure, I'll accept that. So now you define "walking distance." Your reference to "roads" would appear to mean that you equate "walking distance" with "accessible by foot," an absurd standard which would make Tierra del Fuego "walking distance" from Montreal.

- A train in every town and village? No. Accessible from every town and village? Yes.

- The last mile? Okay, you're starting to, pardon the pun, go off the rails. First, we're not talking about every house in the US having a railroad at its front door. Second, those companies are looking to maximize their profits, not provide a public service. There is no proper comparison and the argument is irrelevant.

- And you end up, naturally enough, with a complete train wreck. I'm sorry to be this blunt, but just how uninformed on the matter does one have to be to be unaware that "every [US] city over 1,000,000 population" already has passenger and freight rail service?

Now, if you were to drop your number by an order of magnitude, we'd have a good starting point.

Anonymous said...

"companies are looking to maximize their profits, not provide a public service."

Companies aren't looking to provide a public service, Larrye?  I'm shocked.  Profits made this country great. Public service?  Not so much.  Why don't you form a company based on public service?  You can sell shares to you colleagues who share your not-for-profit vision.  

Passenger rail carries less than one percent of personal travel in the country. If every city over a million already has rail, what does that tell us?  It tells me people who live in populated areas reject passenger rail. It probably tells you the public sector doesn't spend enough public funds on it. 

Oh but wait a minute.  Maybe we are reading it wrong. Maybe people in smaller towns want trains...unlike their larger city brethren. Maybe we should expand our failing experiment into smaller cities. Those people surely want -- nay, NEED -- trains!

Of course no one in their right mind would test that for a profit so the government must step in and do it as a public service. 

Larrye, get a clue, would ya!  Americans won't give up their cars. Okay?  No matter how many trains you give them ... no matter how many billions of dollars you borrow from China ... no matter how desperately you driveling liberal choo choo fanatics want them next to you on the empty trains, they want to be in their cars. Thus, trains are destined to be a drain. 

Walking distance is the distance from the average American's couch to her car. If "accessible" is at the other extreme, say 100 miles, then maybe passenger rail is already accessible to 80% of Americans. That's why defining it matters. 

You can have the last word. It's your blog. Besides, I doubt anybody is reading this but me and you and it's soon to be just you. (As a train rider, you're used to lonely.)

LarryE said...

Companies aren't looking to provide a public service, Larrye? I'm shocked

You've already shown you don't know what you're talking about, so please don't add idiocy on top of ignorance. You tried to reject investment in rail by pointing to decisions of telcoms. My point, as you now tacitly admit, is that the argument was totally irrelevant.

However, now I understand why you made it:

Profits made this country great. Public service? Not so much.

Besides denigrating the worth of the work of literally tens of millions of people over the years ("cliche stereotypical government bureaucrat" does not equal "public service"), you are convinced that if there ain't a buck to be made, it ain't worth doing. It may surprise you to learn that selfishness is not a virtue.

It tells me people who live in populated areas reject passenger rail.

Which in turn tells me that you are putting your conclusion before the evidence, which does not surprise me. You should do a little reading, at least, on how the rail corporations deliberately drove passenger rail into the ground to justify dumping it. Then you can check the news for the last couple of years to see how the use of both inter- and intracity mass transit has been setting records.

Maybe people in smaller towns want trains

Um, actually, yeah: One of the reasons Amtrak has survived the attacks of your like-minded "if it doesn't benefit me personally, it's a waste" cohorts in government is that people in those rural and largely "red" states like Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, and other places know that Amtrak is their only long-distance carrier and don't want to see it stop running. (Recall that Rep. Rahall is from West Virginia.) Thank you for raising the point.

Americans won't give up their cars.

No one expects Americans to "give up" their cars and stop driving altogether. Please stop parading your ignorance.

But your implication that everyone (or at least everyone who counts) already has a car is false. Nearly 20% of black households, 14% of Latino households, and 13% of Asian households don't have cars. And that's not just because they all live in central cities where everything is immediately available. What's more, 15% of Native Americans live more than 100 miles from basic services.

trains are destined to be a drain

"Drain," apparently, again being defined as spending money on things you don't see as benefiting you personally and immediately.

Are you prepared to surrender all the other "drains?" You don't really think that the roads and highways all those cars you love are using are actually paid for by gas taxes and user fees, do you? In fact, they account for only about half of the cost. The rest is - gasp! - public money. Roads are "destined to be a drain."

(Parenthetically, I assume since you want to avoid all such "drains" that you never drive on an interstate.)

empty trains

Which merely - again - shows you really don't know what you're talking about. Not only does the use of the rails continue to rise, two years ago the concern was if Amtrak could expand its service face enough and secure enough rolling stock to meet the increasing demand.

"Empty trains?" I mentioned in the post we're planning another trip. We're having a problem because the trains are booked up. I could use a little emptiness right about now.

LarryE said...

"Face enough" was of course supposed to be "fast enough."

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