Sunday, April 13, 2008

Which Way Amtrak?

I've been following the news on Amtrak since Liz started going back and forth to school on the train. Well, sort of on the train....the closest Amtrak comes is to Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo. We usually drive her to Kalamazoo, a still a four hour drive, but closer than going all the way to Chicago. We put her on the train and drive back home; by the time we come in the door, she has come into Chicago, switched to the Metra, walked home from her stop, and is just about walking into her dorm room. We wish that the train came farther north, or that the bus trip to meet the train wasn't so time-consuming. But we're glad that she can take the train at least partway.

If President Bush has his way, Amtrak will be going backwards. The president's proposed 2009 budget includes a 40% cut in Amtrak funding. Amtrak ridership is rising, along with gas prices and airline delays. We need more investment in low-carbon transportation alternatives, not less.
Last October, the US Senate passed the Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act, which will provide Amtrak with a stable source of funding through 2011, and provide for expansion of passenger routes using a 80/20 match of federal and state funds. We are still waiting for sponsorship of the corresponding House bill, but it is already the basis of efforts across the country to add or restore intercity rail services.
When Liz first started riding the train in 2006, you almost had to be a broke college student or a climate change visionary to put up with the poor service. Sometimes the train was on time, but once it fell a little behind, it just got later and later as it sat by the side and let freight trains pass it by. It seems that the passenger trains were allotted a certain time slot on the track, and if it fell behind schedule, it had to wait for an open slot instead of going ahead of the freight. So I was interested to read about this study that "describes how delays to Amtrak trains that operate over freight railroad lines cost the company almost $137 million in fiscal year 2006, an amount equal to 30 percent of its federal operating subsidy." It seems that, by law, passenger trains always had priority over freight, but the tracks are owned by the freight companies and nobody did anything about it when they put their own business first.
Liz thinks that the trains have become much more reliable since she started riding. I wonder if the improvement is due to different priorities or because the economy has slowed and so there is less freight moving. I don't think that moving freight is unimportant. The rise in just in time manufacturing depends on moving freight quickly and reliably. Passengers and freight competing for space on the same aging tracks is just another facet of our nation's failure to keep investing in infrastructure. Much made about jobs moving overseas due to cheaper labor, but I wonder if the future belongs to the nation with the more up to date railroads.
If so, we'd better look at Shanghai. Great Lakes Guy posted a story about the high speed mag lev train they're building for passenger service. It's top speed is over 300 miles per hour; normal operating speed is about 268 MPH:

That means, if we were building this sort of advanced transportation technology in the United States, you could get from Detroit to Chicago in just over one hour. It's at least a 4-hour car ride if you're hauling the mail down I-94.

Chicago to Minneapolis, nearly a 7-hour drive, would take less than 2 hours. Cleveland to Pittsburgh? Be there in 30 minutes. No gas fillups, no traffic jams, no exorbitant downtown parking fees.

With that sort of perspective, it just doesn't seem all that extravagant when I wish for the sort of train service that was routine in the US around, say 1950.

No comments: