On Trains

This is a bit of a departure from my usual concerns, but recently, I read Allies of the Earth by Alfred Runte, and Waiting on a Train by James McCommons which are both lovely: Runte looking at evoking appropriate nostalgia for our once-great system and McCommons at describing what went wrong and where we are now. So, I tried thinking about what we could do going forward to make the world a little better along these lines.

Investing in rail and rail infrastructure should be important if you:

  • love trains
  • love the idea of American supremacy and are embarrassed
  • care about the environment
  • support the notion of choice in travel modes
  • want to help reduce unemployment
  • prefer automobiles and planes but would like to see less stress and overcrowding thereon

There are many ways America could achieve a respectable system in the immediate future. I’m not a student of governance, nor a policy wonk, but these seem to me the most pressing, workable solutions.

Nationalize the rails. This will likely be contentious, but it needn’t be. The Federal Highway System is run, regulated, and funded by the Feds, as are the airways (and now, the security at airports). There is no reason that the rails shouldn’t likewise be. America’s railroads are not a property, but a right-of-way, on which any number of businesses ought to have the right to move. This can be sold as a free enterprise solution, rather than a socialist one, because it will allow competition. Private Pullman companies could make quick trips from city to city on our safe, maintained, government owned rails. Moreover, the companies what currently run the hodgepodge of networks would be glad to be rid of them. Rail maintenance backlogs extend to volumes, but they don’t get done, endangering both people and commerce, because each company angles for government dollars before making necessary repairs. We pay for them anyway, but the private companies retain ownership, and therefore rights-of-way. This is why trains are always late.

Require tracking devices on all trains operating on U.S. rails. We have tried this a few times before. I’ve lost track of the current status. They not only keep trains from running into one another, they allow them to go much, much faster (because they don’t have to worry about running into each other). We passed a bill requiring them again recently, but toast I heard the deadline was approaching and the rail companies had yet to comply. Time to stop messing around. Fine $500,000 per week till all rolling stock in the U.S. is trackable. Put the money directly in Amtrak’s operating budget.

Fold Amtrak funding into the annual transportation bill. It’s perfectly absurd that every year congress allocates a transport budget that doesn’t include a mode of transport responsible for goods and 31.6 million people. Instead, Amtrak funding is a line-item on discretionary spending, offering an annual opportunity for Republicans to make petty swipes and to trot out scary numbers about labor costs. The current system also means that the whole system is imperiled every few years when we get a president who does’t like trains. That’s crazy. President Obama has proposed this move in the FY2014 budget, and he should veto any transport budget that does not include funding for Amtrak at 5%. Then congress can strike it from discretionary and tout their accomplishment to the folks back home.

Offer federal matching funds at 1:1 ratio to all states and/or cities that want to upgrade, redesign, or add train stations. This should be an open grant process, not tied to specific bills or budgets.

Incentivize timely completion of infrastructure projects. Projects completed in under 12 months get additional 20% federal funding, for example, 18 months and it goes to 15%, 24 to 10%. We should be much faster at this.

what you can do as a person

  • Join the National Association of Railroad Passengers. This should become a strong lobby made up of philanthropists, hobbyists, retirees, environmentalists, bicyclists and students.
  • Write your congressmen, especially if you live in a red state. They need reminding that there are people in their constituencies who care about such things.
  • Ride the rails! Ridership numbers keep going up, year after year, despite bad design, high prices, and dismal service. Eventually, there will be too many of us to ignore.
  • Follow these clever people.