Archive for January 19th, 2012

I opened the curtains this morning at 6:15 am expecting to be somewhere close to Denver. Instead I saw flat land. Prairie. My map showed me that we were still in western central Nebraska, hours away from Denver.

While I was sleeping the train stopped, and apparently more than once because from what I could calculate, we were behind schedule by a few hours. As the sun began to light the morning sky prior to it’s rise over the eastern horizon I decided to make my way to the dining car. Breakfast seating began at 7:00 am. Pancakes or French toast, scrambled eggs or as I chose, a Swiss cheese omelette with potatoes, bacon and a warm croissant. The woman with whom I ate dinner last night sat down at my table just as I was finishing up.

When 8 am arrived the conductor made his first announcements of the day, stating indeed, that we were now about four hours behind schedule due to freight traffic during the night. Our travel thus far has been on rails owned by Burlington Northern and their controllers give priority to their own trains.

The railroads were initially built to connect the country, thus bringing people and goods to a nation that was expanding westward. You may recall from history books that the government gave land to private companies on which they were chartered with the business of building railroads. While there was income to be made on transporting people and goods, there was even more money to be made from selling off the land that adjoined these new railroads. The railroad magnets of that era were creating their fortunes off of a government subsidy – that being the land itself. The model worked and thus the country became connected from sea to shining sea.

Fast forward to the late 1960’s and the railroads began to discover that carrying people wasn’t as profitable as it once had been, in part because of mismanagement and in part because people started traveling by cars built by yet another private industry, though enabled through the huge government subsidy known the Interstate Highway System. The shifting of government subsidies, from the giving of land to build railroads to clearing land to build highways, shifted public demand and passenger traffic on railroads nearly evaporated.

Amtrak was created by Congress in 1971 to maintain the intercity movement of passengers via rail, though the government continued to subsidize the construction of freeways, airports and of course, oil. This model worked to produce new industries which created tremendous wealth for many millions of Americans.

Things began to change again in the early twenty-first century. The country’s population had grown rapidly. The aging and now underfunded Interstate Highway System was over capacity and beginning to crumble. The cost of securing oil through military use became increasing more expensive and created political strife. The Untied States was no longer the only industrialized nation and we were competing for the purchase of oil, thus driving oil prices even higher.

Today, due to shrinking federal funds the systems that were built by federal funds are unable to keep up with demand. Now we have to rethink where and how to invest – to make sustainable public investments so that we don’t run into these types of problems again.

The reason my train is now four hours late is because Amtrak does not have dedicated track. Dedicated tracks aren’t necessarily required, but modern train tracking equipment is, though the private railroads are reluctant to spend the money to increase efficiencies that don’t necessarily benefit them. Airlines don’t have dedicated runways, but they do have a system in place for the fair (some may question that) and equitable use of air-traffic facilities. It’s known as the Federal Aviation Administration.

My train could even go faster too if the engineer wanted but private railroads have not maintained their tracks to sufficient levels to sustain higher speeds. So when you hear politicians talking about how inefficient Amtrak is, they’re only partially correct. Amtrak is efficient as it can be because it is being throttled by private industry. Additionally, while the federal government continues to build new highways and new runways, it is not building new railroad tracks.

Other nations are, however, because federal dollar for dollar, passenger travel by rail remains the most cost effective method of moving people. My 1038 mile journey to Denver which on Amtrak has taken thus far twenty-one hours would have only taken five to seven hours on a 200 mph modern train like those in France, Germany, Japan or Korea.

Critics are correct when they say that people will not travel long distances on trains because of time constraints. Critics will also say that if passenger rail travel were profitable, private industry would build it. They are also correct. And if General Motors had to build the Interstate Highway System and if Delta Air Lines had to build airports and runways, both companies would have vastly different business models.

Despite the critics, Amtrak is seeing steady year-over-year increases in passenger boardings. Yes, the scenery is beautiful. Yes, the seats are more spacious than on an airplane. Yes, train stations are less congested and less burdensome than airports and yes, maybe it is that now that the largest segment of the American population is retiring with the largest amassed income ever produced, these people may very well be the driving Amtrak’s business.

Our tax dollars build industries. They always have and when you hear politicians say that they can’t or shouldn’t, they’re wrong. Look around at what you have and a vast portion of it has come because the government subsidized an industry that supports you, or pays you. I will agree with the politicians that funding inefficient industries and/or projects is wasteful. Which is exactly why government needs to invest in passenger rail because it is inherently efficient with land use, fuel, speed and capacity.

My train has just arrived in Denver. Exactly four hours late. The engineer announced that he’ll try to make up time as we head to Salt Lake City. For the remainder of the trip, my train will be using tracks owned and maintained by Union Pacific.

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