Saturday, March 28, 2009


guest-posted by Armadillo Joe

Hey, Blog-O-Maniacs!

Today, I want to talk about what Atrios would call SUPERTRAINS, though not exactly. He means SUPERTRAINS! as a catch-all phrase indicating policies that encourage more widespread use of passenger rail as a means of re-configuring land-use in this country, the current form of which is shockingly unsustainable due to the fact that it is so overwhelmingly car-oriented. Thus, changing it is a program I support and believe in wholly and fully. We can change things now and be ready for the future, or we can let the future over-run us. Personally, I choose action.

What I think is more important in the larger view when generally discussing the idea of rail in this country is that we must think of it as a comprehensive system of passenger, freight and mixed use. And not just these different applications, but on different scales for different purposes, light passenger rail connecting to heavier regional rail connecting to high-speed inter-regional and continent-wide rail and then reconfiguring our cities around these new transportation arrangements. We have a six-decade misallocation of effort to correct as cars become less and less tenable (and, yes, I mean hybrids, too) as the backbone of our national transportation system. It isn't just about reducing our dependence on oil, it's the land-use policies required to accomodate automobile traffic (whether powered by fossil fuels or NiCad batteries) -- from 12-lane freeways to 20-acre parking lots to sprawling neighborhoods laid out to make parking cars easier with wider lanes for street parking and alleys and larger lots to make room for garages -- which all work in concert to destroy our relationship to the land. These accumulated problems must be corrected if we are to ever be able to feed and house ourselves into the future. Only by so conceiving and constructing an overlapping web of differently purposed and differently scaled rail networks will we ever be able to pull ourselves out of the petroleum trap that so distorts our nation's politics both domestic and foreign.

The simple fact is that we simply don't have enough rail (light & heavy, passenger & freight) to supplant automobile and truck usage as petroleum prices spiral into the stratosphere in the next decade and beyond and that impacts not only economic efficiency as we move people and goods around the map, but it impacts our ability to feed, clothe and house our population and THAT goes to the very heart of society, government and the stability of our current living arrangements. We need rail to replace all those cars and trucks and airplanes as a means of moving people and goods around this vast country as fossil fuels get prohibitively expensive in direct costs (to say nothing of the hidden costs already incurred with our skewed infrastructure, international diplomacy and environmental policy prescriptions). Obama's infrastructure budget is geared more towards maintaining the so-called "happy motoring" culture we seem to consider sacrosanct in this country, toward refurbishing and repairing and (sadly) building more car-oriented roads and bridges rather than finding ways to discourage car and truck use and replace it with robust public transportation options. In that way, he is not a trail-blazer but a reflection of the people who voted for him. Most Americans simply cannot conceive of life without cars, of cities and the movement of goods and people without internal combustion engines pushing rubber tires on ribbons of roadway to far-flung big box stores and isolated dots of domesticity plunked down amid vast rings of resource-intensive lawns, everywhere they go requiring that land-devouring eyesore called "parking."

In this rubber-on-concrete milieu, public transportation means slow, lumbering buses slugging their way through single-passenger traffic, only to still have to walk through vastly wide and distinctly pedestrian un-friendly concrete intersections and sprawling parking lots (and back again) to get anywhere, for any purpose. Which is where we bump up against the limits of large-scale steel wheel installation in the United States of America. Sure, we can build miles upon miles of rail criss-crossing this nation, connecting small communities and enormous cities alike, but in most places people will have nowhere to go once they get out of the train station as the land-use around each station is still very much car-oriented. Take, for instance, the station pictured on the left - Poughkeepsie, New York. If one should choose to be earth-friendly and ride a train north out of New York City up the Hudson to this sleepy burgh, what greets you? Acres of parking lot and not a single human-scaled, walkable storefront or neighborhood. Sure, that train kept whatever number of cars off the freeway while moving those people upstate, but they still fanned out into cars to get themselves home to their grossly energy inefficient houses and neighborhoods. Maybe they could be greeted by omnibuses upon their arrival, or jitny buses or overhead-wire street-level light rail, but those solutions only make sense if people have built relatively tightly-knit neighborhoods surrounding the train station, which they have not.

The other part of the current national distaste for public transportation (even put forth by supposedly lefty people like my sister) is that poor people ride the bus, and by poor we mean black and hispanic. She lives in Dallas, which has spent a great deal of money and effort to diminish traffic problems by building rail into its DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) system. Cool, futuristic trains can take a person from the quaint little station in otherwise horrifically suburban Plano (your author's hometown, BTW) all the way to downtown Dallas to see an opera or a basketball game. Sure wish Dallas had sported something like the current DART rail system back when I was in high school there. But as much as I, as a daily public transportation user here in the Big Apple, praise Dallas' system from afar, my sister tells me that the general consensus down there in Dallas is that only poor people use DART Rail and so no general movement to abandon cars is afoot in Big D.

But for a social justice-minded lefty like this cowboy hippie, the idea that poor people ride the bus and light-rail is, of course, the whole fucking point. Providing transportation for the poor and less-abled in our society is a generally desirable social good that ought to be publicly supported and widely encouraged but seems alien in our rugged-individualist fetishizing culture, a culture for which single-passenger automobile transportation (no matter how generally destructive to ecology and civic fabric) seems ideally suited. In France, which has quite possibly the finest overlapping network of trains of all scales in the world, culminating in the ultra high-speed TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), the motto of the rail network is "TGV pour tous" or "high-speed rail for all of us."
"As a result, the trains aren’t luxurious, but they’re comfortable and cheap enough for anyone to ride. That’s especially true because of the national rail company’s discounts for the poor, the young, the old, the sick, and large families. There’s little cost incentive in France to take the slow train.

Even so, the national rail company made over a billion Euros in profit in 2007 and half a billion in 2008, even as the economic crisis started to bite. France’s example shows that it is possible to imagine fast railways that are accessible to the rich and to the poor, for travel over short and long distances, that don’t break the national bank."
Now, I should at this point admit a few biases. As you all realize by now, I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas and grew up amid Big D's sprawling suburbs with a car-scaled sense of place: vast parking lots, cavernous shopping malls, wide inhuman slabs of simmering concrete filled beyond the brim with noisy, pollution-spewing, fossil fuel-burning cars and trucks. I used to make fun of easterners who crammed into trains and subways, even while I sat idling in ozone-destroying traffic, and used to bitch endlessly about downtown Dallas where the streets were narrow and I could never find parking. Underneath that anti-social bravado, of course, I was deeply unhappy with having to drive everywhere for everything all the time. Before I was a licensed driver, I hated having to ride my bike just to get to the 7-11 to buy a Slurpee® on a hot summer day to say nothing of having to be driven everywhere anytime I had to go anywhere else. Even after I got my license, I had commutes to my high school (20-30 minutes), commutes to the mall to work (15-20 minutes), commutes to my girlfriend's house (20-30 minutes). Not having much money also meant driving a crappy car always on the verge of breaking down for various reasons or the ever-looming threat of lacking enough money for gasoline to keep the car running. And being lower-middle class in a wealthy suburb also made me sharply aware of my status in a school or mall parking lot filled with BMW's, Corvettes and shiny new pickup trucks. Widely available public transit wouldn't really have solved all of those social problems, and would have unveiled others no doubt, but at least I would have always been able to get myself to school and work.

Then I relocated to New York City about a decade ago and -- after also spending some time in Europe recently -- cannot imagine how I ever lived as I did in that car-centric place. Dallas (and car-centric places like it: Denver, Atlanta, Phoenix, Los Angeles, etc...) is going to have a very short lifespan in the coming post-petroleum world. Experiencing over time a non-car-centric life was very eye-opening. Fewer cars makes for better cities, frankly, and not just because easing congestion makes driving easier for remaining motorists. The answer is not just to reduce the number of cars on the road, but to transform the way we use the land we have so that we don't need cars as much. Which is why I think hybrid cars are also a loser in the long run: they simply reinforce the idea that cars and car-centric living are sustainable and preferable. And not just cars, but also trucks, and all because not only are we using up a precious and irreplaceable natural resource, in so doing we are also rendering all the other natural resources (air, water, land) less and less able to sustain life on earth, all life on earth.

When I say that we must transform our land use, I mean we can no longer abide living arrangements like the eyesore on the right. Look at it. It's horrible. One way in, one way out and one main road presumably connecting to a town or two in one direction or the other. What happens in a few years when the world finally runs out of cheap petroleum and gasoline is $15 a gallon and no one can afford to drive anywhere? How to get food in or garbage out? What about leisure activities besides sitting at home watching the Tee-Vee? What about going to a park? Seeing a show? Gathering with friends at a pub for a brew or coffee shop for some java and a chat? Even visiting a friend in the same subdivision requires driving. A pleasant stroll really isn't an option, is it? Where would you walk? Who'd want to anyway?

A living structure like that one is meant to serve one purpose, to keep it's inhabitants isolated and in debt, slaves to work and a house they can't afford to live in.

What has been built there is a ghetto and in the very near future it will either be populated by poor people cut off from work and leisure activity or it will be abandoned altogether and raided for parts as the coming economic contraction makes inner cities and inner-ring, first-generation suburbs closer to hubs of economic activity much more desirable places to live, with their mixed-use, pedestrian friendly sidewalks and walkable neighborhoods. James Howard Kunstler (author of "The Long Emergency" which all of you should order from RIGHT NOW) called the building of the American suburbs the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. What he means is not just the paving over of arable farmland, making the goal of eating locally grown food to reduce our carbon footprint harder and harder to achieve, but also the presumption of unlimited cheap petroleum embraced by the very structures of multi-lane freeways and far-flung exurbs, like the one discussed above.

How could such a place ever be retro-fitted with the small grocery stores and five & dimes and bars and pubs and the various support businesses like laundries and dry cleaners that define older, tightly-knit neighborhoods and make them enjoyable places to live? To say nothing of connecting such a neighborhood to some kind of train line that would make it a useful part of some larger regional economy? I don't even know where this place is (a Google image search has its disadvantages, too) but does it really matter? In what possible world, other than one in which oil is cheap, cheap, cheap can such a place even be conceived? We've been building places like this one across the whole nation for decades, instead of using our diminishing supply of petroleum to power the heavy machines to build things like rail lines and smart land-use cities, we've built widely-scattered, cheaply thrown together crap like those houses with no long-term value. How many of those houses, even if we don't experience a petroleum crunch, will still be standing in 50 years? And of those few, how many will really be even semi-decent places to live? What a shame that we've let the older stock of solidly constructed brick factories and houses and mid-rise urban structures rot into oblivion because they lacked decent parking for our infernal machines, instead of renovating them and preserving the inherent value of a well-built stock of older houses.

For instance, look at the gorgeous mansion pictured on the left, sadly located in the failed city of Detroit. How could such a place go unclaimed anywhere? What a magnificent house, left to decay into nothingness, the man-hours and energy (human, animal and mechanical) expended in it's construction dissipating into the universe to never be of use to human life again, surrendered to entropy. Nowhere else on the planet would so much previous effort be allowed to simply waste away to nothing. Whether Detroit or Buffalo, America lets her cities wither and die. That is also what Kunstler meant by waste of resources.

But this post is about trains, and me posting a picture of a mansion decaying in Motor City is irony sublime. Detroit's raison d'tre eventually killed the functioning train system in this country, and in an epic act of literary irony, the monster it unleashed killed it's creator as people fled the dirty, crowded cities for wider spaces and greener pastures, which they quickly paved over and parked their cars on.

The road back (wink-wink) is not a road at all, but steel wheels on steel track. And Philip Longman argues very cogently in this article from the recent issue of Washington Monthly that such a path starts with freight. We look with envy at the sleek modern trains - street-level or subway or high-speed - that, by necessity, keep European cities compact and walkable. It took them most of the last century to build those over-lapping networks and we're not going to catch up anytime soon. But if we can start to move our goods by rail, like we did just two generations ago, the resulting rise in rail infrastructure will pull a corresponding increase in passenger rail along behind it, especially as gas prices soar over the next several decades and people tire of the constant daily fight a car-centered life represents.

First he lays out some important history:
Railroads are also potentially very labor efficient. Even in the days of the object-lesson train, when brakes had to be set manually and firemen were needed to stoke steam engines, a five-man crew could easily handle a fifty-car freight train, doing the work of ten times as many modern long-haul truckers.

In the first half of the last century, railroads used these and other advantages of steel wheel technology to provide services we tend to think of as modern, or in some cases even futuristic. The Pacific Fruit Growers Express delivered fresh California fruits and vegetables to the East Coast using far less energy and labor than today’s truck fleets. The rhythmically named Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific (a.k.a. the Milwaukee Road) hauled hundred-car freight trains over the Cascade and Rocky Mountains using electric engines drawing on the region’s abundant hydropower. The Railway Express Agency, which attached special cars to passenger trains, provided Americans with a level of express freight service that cannot be had for any price today, offering door-to-door delivery of everything from canoes to bowls of tropical fish to, in at least one instance, a giraffe. Into the 1950s, it was not uncommon for a family to ship its refrigerator to and from a lakeside cabin for the summer via the REA; thanks to the physics of steel-on-steel conveyance, appliance-sized items could be moved for trivially larger amounts of money than smaller goods (think about that the next time you shell out an extra $50 to check a suitcase of dirty clothes on a domestic flight).

High-speed Railway Post Office trains also offered efficient mail service to even the smallest towns which is not matched today. In his book Train Time, Harvard historian and rail expert John R. Stilgoe describes the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Fast Mail train No. 11, which, because of its speed and on-board crew of fast sorting mail clerks, ensured next-day delivery on a letter mailed with a standard two-cent stamp in New York to points as far west as Chicago. Today, that same letter is likely to travel by air first to FedEx’s Memphis hub, then be unloaded, sorted, and reloaded onto another plane, a process that demands far greater expenditures of money, carbon, fuel, and, in many instances, time than the one used eighty years ago.

The glory days of American railroads are now beyond the memory of most Americans. Rail service was already in decline during the Depression, and the gas rationing and logistical strains of World War II made train travel a standing-room-only horror. In large part because of that generational experience, most Americans came to believe that the decline of railroads was an inevitable part of the march of progress. But the reality is close to the opposite. Especially for long-haul freight, steel wheel on steel rail is a far superior technology, and its eclipse by rubber wheels is mostly the result of special interest politics, ill-considered public policies, and other factors that have nothing to do with efficiency.
Then he paints a picture of the current situation:
Semis account for roughly one out of every four vehicles that travel through Virginia on I-81’s four lanes, the highest percentage of any interstate in the country. They’re there for a reason: I-81 traces a mostly rural route all the way from the Canadian border to Tennessee, and the cities in its path—Syracuse, Scranton, Harrisburg, Hagerstown, and Roanoke among them—are midsized and slow growing. This makes the highway a tempting alternative to I-95, the interstate that connects the eastern seaboard’s major metropolises, which is so beset with tolls and congestion that truckers will drive hundreds of extra miles to avoid it.

This is bad news for just about everyone. Even truckers have to deal with an increasingly overcrowded, dangerous I-81, and for motorists it’s a white-knuckle terror. Because much of the road is hilly, they find themselves repeatedly having to pass slow-moving trucks going uphill, only to see them looming large in the rearview mirror on the down grade. For years, state transportation officials have watched I-81 get pounded to pieces by tractor trailers, which are responsible for almost all non-weather-related highway wear and tear. To make matters worse, traffic is projected to rise by 67 percent in just the next ten years.

The conventional response to this problem would be simply to build more lanes. That’s what highway departments do. But at a cost of $11 billion, or $32 million per mile, Virginia cannot afford to do that without installing tolls, which might have to be set as high as 17 cents per mile for automobiles. When Virginia’s Department of Transportation proposed doing this early last year, truckers and ordinary Virginians alike set off a firestorm of protest. At the same time, just making I-81 wider without adding tolls would make its truck traffic problems worse, as still more trucks diverted from I-95 and other routes.

Looking for a way out of this dilemma, Virginia transportation officials have settled on an innovative solution: use state money to get freight off the highway and onto rails. As it happens, running parallel to I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley and across the Piedmont are two mostly single-track rail lines belonging to the Norfolk Southern Railroad. Known as the Crescent Corridor, these lines have seen a resurgence of trains carrying containers, just like most of the trucks on I-81 do. The problem is that the track needs upgrading and there are various choke points, so the Norfolk Southern cannot run trains fast enough to be time competitive with most of the trucks hurtling down I-81.
And finally he highlights how all of the above can bring us into a better future, but only if we use the resources we have -- including those in the stimulus bill -- to build the things we actually need:
Thanks to the collapsing economy, a powerful new consensus has developed in Washington behind a once-in-a-generation investment in infrastructure. The incoming administration is talking of spending as much as $1 trillion to jump-start growth and make up for past neglect, an outlay that Obama himself characterizes as "the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s." We’ll soon be moving earth again like it’s 1959.


All over the country there are opportunities like the I-81/Crescent Corridor deal, in which relatively modest amounts of capital could unclog massive traffic bottlenecks, revving up the economy while saving energy and lives. Many of these projects have already begun, like Virginia’s, or are sitting on planners’ shelves and could be up and running quickly. And if we’re willing to think bigger and more long term—and we should be—the potential of a twenty-first-century rail system is truly astonishing. In a study recently presented to the National Academy of Engineering, the Millennium Institute, a nonprofit known for its expertise in energy and environmental modeling, calculated the likely benefits of an expenditure of $250 billion to $500 billion on improved rail infrastructure. It found that such an investment would get 83 percent of all long-haul trucks off the nation’s highways by 2030, while also delivering ample capacity for high-speed passenger rail.


we’re not talking about bailing out a failing industry, but about helping an expanding, more energy-efficient one to grow fast enough to meet pressing public needs. Nor would we be making big bets on unproven technology. Also, it’s important to remember that big trucking companies, facing acute driver shortages and mounting highway congestion, are increasingly shifting their containers to rail and so have an interest in improved rail infrastructure. With trucking companies morphing into logistics companies, it’s a new day in the special interest politics of freight.
As Atrios always says: SUPERTRAINS!

Please go read the whole article. I found it enlightening and even encouraging.

Thus ends part one of my discussion on trains and public policy in the United States. I obviously think trains are a good thing.

Whose with me?


ZenYenta said...

I'm with you. I actually like riding the train, although the only place I go on it is to NYC. I'd do the bus if we had functional ones here, but a bus system that doesn't run in the evening, or on Sundays, and takes as much as half a day to take you 20 miles or so is not a functional system. Now, right next door in Nassau County, people tell me the buses are pretty useful. I do wish we'd all thought of this forty and fifty years ago. This suburban sprawl has not worked well at all. I do think that has to change. I don't know that I'll be around by the time it does, though.

ZenYenta said...

Oh, and I live right near the railroad. When I first moved to this house, about 35 years ago, there were freight trains that came through during the day once in a while. Of course, they held up traffic pretty good, being way, way longer than commuter trains, but there wasn't so much traffic here then. Things is, at some point - I don't know when - they stopped. No more freight trains here. Lots and lots of big trucks, though.

Armadillo Hussein Joe said...

Ultimately, it boggles my mind that somehow people think those trucks are not as bad as the freight trains they replaced. Amazing.

As always, too, a bus system is not a real public transit solution. It assumes the preeminence of the rubber-wheels-on-pavement model for moving people and goods, which requires some kind of independent power source -- an engine -- and fuel to run it. Until we can break out of that kind of in-the-box thinking (of which the notion of hybrid cars is a part), better land use and improved living arrangements will continue to elude us.

As for the history of it, in the 1940's as G.I's were coming home and starting families, cities were thought of as expensive, crowded, dirty & dangerous places that needed to be escaped -- for which the greenery of the suburbs became some kind of magical remedy. That mythology held all through the fifties and sixties.

I place the blame for our current predicament on those failing to act properly around the time Ronald Reagan took over this country. By then, we knew about ecology, Spaceship Earth, limited petroleum, we'd even had several Oil Shocks and energy crises... yet all through the 1980's as France, Britain, Japan, Germany and the rest of the industrialized world curtailed car usage and started building ever faster train networks, we doubled down on cars and the supposed virtues of the suburban lifestyle.

All because, to the neanderthals on the political right in this country, it was easier to mock Jimmy Carter in a sweater lecturing us about conserving energy as some kind of pointy-headed lib'rhul trying to change the 'Murr-can way of life.

We may have once unknowingly been down the wrong road, but after the 1970's we knew what was right and chose to do wrong instead.

walter said...

Perfect summary of the problem. Pols need to be continuously lobbied. I never fail to be amazed at how ignorant they are about the obvious. We have a 3rd world rail system.