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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

March 3, 2011 at 10:20 AM

Don’t be railroaded into myths about trains and transit: They’re essential to the future

Ridership may go up and down for Sound Transit, but it is essential infrastructure for a prosperous Northwest in the decades to come, particularly commuter rail and light rail. Gasoline prices are only going to head higher in the long run, electric cars will be expensive and are not a power source, so offering the choice of a robust multi-modal transit system is essential for competitiveness.

Some conservatives make a fetish out of opposition to transit and trains, for reasons that elude me (anti-urban bias, money from the oil companies, ???). A host of myths are thrown out about rail. In reality, no transportation system in the world exists without public subsidies, and America heavily subsidizes the automobile and airlines to the detriment of what was once the world’s finest rail system. Roads and freeways do not “pay for themselves.” Also, Amtrak is very highly patronized and would be more so if schedules were more frequent and convenient. The success of the Cascades here shows this, as does the relatively abundant rail service in California. As for light rail, one of the most successful systems is in road warrior Dallas, which just opened a 28-mile extension.

Now China and other nations are rapidly catching up with Europe and Japan in high-speed rail, and Europe is expanding its systems. High-speed rail offers faster service and more energy efficiency on numerous city-pair routes. They understand the need for rail in the mix to save fuel and address climate change. In America, we’re fighting over just creating higher-speed rail. In fact, almost a century ago 100-mile-per-hour trains were common here. Now Amtrak is often limited to 79 mph outside the Northeast Corridor. And even the Northwest Corridor is not true high-speed rail, from 120 mph to more than 220 mph. (We need to expand freight capacity, too — something Wall Street has resisted, not wanting private railroads to reinvest in themselves).

According to a new report in Trains magazine, 13 nations in Asia and Europe have 8,000 miles of true high-speed rail (155 mph or higher), with another 18,000 more miles on the way. China has built a 2,800-mile network and has the fastest schedules (setting a world record of 302 mph and its fastest revenue trains operate at 217 mph). This is the future.

America had an opportunity with the Great Recession to actually build high-speed rail, rebuild conventional passenger service, and retrofit increasingly dense suburban areas with commuter rail and transit. All this would have prepared the nation for a higher-cost energy future and helped ease greenhouse gases. It would have created huge numbers of construction jobs and other permanent rail jobs, as well as bringing home industries we’ve lost.

It was not to be. Some money was allocated to expand rail capacity, including in the Northwest — an important factor to drawing riders is reliability, and frequent mudslides don’t help. Transit systems suffered. The half-effort to study building high-speed rail in Florida was always misbegotten: The Sunshine State is too car-dependent, lacks density and lacks a habit of already using rail. Now the new Republican governor has refused funds for the project. And House Republicans will no doubt renew efforts to kill Amtrak, continuing a long process of under-funding the railroad that has created a vicious cycle of disappointment.

Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman struck back at the new anti-rail push on his New York Times blog:

My experience is that of the three modes of mechanized transport I use, trains are by far the most liberating. Planes are awful: waiting to clear security, then having to sit with your electronics turned off during takeoff and landing, no place to go if you want to get up in any case. Cars — well, even aside from traffic jams (tell me how much freedom you experience waiting for an hour in line at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel), the thing about cars is that you have to drive them, which kind of limits other stuff.

But on a train I can read, listen to music, use my aircard to surf the web, get up and walk to the cafe car for some Amfood; oh, and I’m not restricted by the War on Liquids. When I can, I prefer to take the train even if it takes a couple of hours more, say to get to Boston, because it’s much higher-quality time…So if trains represent soulless collectivism, count me in.

Me, too. But there are solid economic and environmental reasons beyond the personal. The future is going to work against the 1965 driving culture we cling to, whether we wish this or not. We’re going to need choices. The Seattle area is ahead of most regions in America, although by no means all (take a hint) and needs to stay there.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Record food prices

Water scarcity, oil too

Back to the future

Comments | More in Energy, Railroads, Sustainability, Transportation


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