More than just another mode of transportation, these versatile, still-evolving forms of locomotion are powerful expressions of the American character—of our can-do spirit, sense of adventure, and yearning to go beyond where we are. And though the 19th-century push to span the nation with rails came with huge human consequences—decimating native tribes and virtually enslaving many immigrant workers—the resulting system tied the country together and unified the economy.
Moreover, we absorbed trains as an organic part of our culture, enriching our language, literature, and art. One place to find this special feeling for railroads is in America’s songbook, which abounds with music animated by the highballing thrust and rhythm of trains, including songs like “Orange Blossom Special,” “Wabash Cannonball,” “Rock Island Line,” “Fireball Mail,” and “City of New Orleans.” In contrast you won’t find many lilting paeans to the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the I-5 in Los Angeles, nor to the jam-packed Monday morning shuttles out of New York’s LaGuardia airport.
But neither are we hearing many new upbeat tunes about traveling from city to city on today’s rail passenger network. That’s because our corporate and governmental masters of transportation have sidetracked what not so long ago was a world-leading, cross-country train system and reduced it to an underfunded hodgepodge that is an insult to the travelling public and wholly inadequate for a nation with pretensions of greatness. Highway builders, auto lobbyists, and airline monopolists—people with concrete for brains and oil in their veins—have hijacked America’s transportation policy. As a result, our mobility future has been clogged with their self-interest, blocking the efficient, reliable, enjoyable rail-travel alternative.
Waiting on a train
Change (and a measure of transportation sanity) will have to come from us outsiders. So this issue of the Lowdown is about American passenger trains, which means it’s really about the abject failure of what we laughingly call “the leaders” of our country. More fundamentally, this issue is about how the corporate takeover of our democratic political process (elections and governance) has slammed the door on the People’s needs and wants. In short, it’s about the collapse of the common good in America… and whether we’ll reclaim it.
A verse in a Jimmie Rodgers blue-yodel from 1928 pretty well sums up where we rail travellers presently find ourselves:
“All around the water tank,
waiting for a train.A thousand miles away from home, sleeping in the rain.”
Rodgers was singing about the rambling, train-hopping vagabonds of his day, but it’s the majority of Americans who’re now waiting, stuck in traffic and yearning for a train. Interestingly, the latest battle cry of neoconservative right wingers is “American Exceptionalism,” referring to a pathetic bit of quasi-religious myth making that insists the USA is the biblical “city upon a hill.” We are, they aver, blessed by God to be intrinsically superior to other nations, as “proven” by our vast industrial capacity, absence of class wars, glorification of individualism, and adherence to the holy doctrine of unfettered capitalism. It’s like a Koch brothers fairy tale, depicted by Disney.
But exceptionalism is as exceptionalism does—and it takes way more than ideological fantasy to build a world-class, comprehensive transportation system. Indeed, our “God-blessed” America has not even measured up to mediocrity in developing this essential piece of public infrastructure.
Practically every wealthy nation today is making major investments in building high-speed rail (HSR) networks to transport their people at speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour—Japan, Canada, France, Russia, India, England, Morocco, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Italy, China, Mexico, Poland, Spain, Brazil, Germany, South Africa, Turkey, etc. But not us, not the wealthiest nation, one with dozens of cities dotted across a continent with millions of people needing fast, convenient rail connection. Not our country.
- Never mind that HSR construction creates a start-up economic boom (from the manufacturing of trains and equipment, construction of everything from bridges to stations, the installation of high-tech control systems, generation of renewable energy to power the electric engines, development of new businesses to serve rail passengers, and more) and would be a sustained source of good, permanent jobs running and maintaining the network.
- Never mind that HSR is a boon for passengers, providing a competitive alternative to airline rip-offs and traffic congestion. Travellers get access to more cities, safer and more comfortable rides, and the ability to work or just relax “on the road.”
- Never mind that HSR trains are powered by electricity, thus substantially reducing consumption of grossly polluting fossil fuels. Here’s some energy irony for you: Saudi Arabia is building its nationwide fast-train system specifically because the royal regime wants to save oil!
- Never mind that HSR crisscrossing America would be a monumental achievement by and for our people, on a par with the 10-year moon shot effort launched by President Kennedy or the Interstate Highway system initiated by President Eisenhower. It would be a history-making project, worthy of a nation with unsurpassed wealth and underused talent. Creating such a treasure for future generations would re-engage our people’s can-do spirit, and it just might rekindle some sense of national unity.
Oh, one more: Never mind that the American people don’t merely like passenger trains, they want them. Various polls over the past 20 years show that public support for greater funding and development of a passenger rail network between our cities ranges from a low of two-thirds approval to nearly nine out of 10 of us, saying “yes” to trains. Even more telling is the fact that ridership on both long-distance and commuter trains has steadily risen as auto travel has fallen (especially among young people) and as airlines deregulated and consolidated, permitting them to reduce service, abandon smaller cities, shrink knee room, raise prices, add fees, and generally make flying unpleasant. Not since the 1950s has rail transportation been so popular, with people now taking some 11 billion trips annually on mass transit.
Amtrak itself now has 32 million passengers a year, a 50 percent increase over 2000. That’s phenomenal, especially since this passenger rail service is not really a national system, but a herky-jerky collection of often-unconnected segments that transports customers by fits and starts. And forget high speeds. Except for some Acela trains in the Northeast that can briefly top 150 mph, the average Amtrak train proceeds at a turtle-ish 48 mph.
Why are we stuck in traffic on roadways and runways, left with a pokey, out-of-date rail system while nations with a small fraction of our resources—like Morocco, Poland, and Turkey—are cruising on HSR networks? Because our leaders sold us out to corporate hucksters who fed us a diet of sugar-coated lies and ideological junk food. Their fairy tale was that mass transit is creaky, inherently inefficient, and socialist—and that freedom-cherishing Americans deserve the private thrill and personal independence that comes from a doctrine of one-person/one-car.
As early as the 1930s, giant corporate consortiums formed to buy out more than 100 of America’s very effective networks of streetcars and interurban train systems. Not to run them, but to rip out the tracks and pave over the rail right of ways to make roads for cars and trucks. They even burned streetcars–as though they were witches! The biggest of these consortiums welded together the combined political and PR power of General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone, and Mack Trucks. Likewise, conniving corporate profiteers mounted a new offensive in the 1990s to undermine the higher-speed potential of Amtrak’s Acela trains, hiring such Koch-funded front groups as Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, and Reason Foundation to spread hokey “analyses” that brand Amtrak as a slow train to collectivist hell.
They also bought trainloads of politicians, who’re still promoting the fabricated studies and talking points of the petro-cabal to wreck as much of Amtrak as they can and derail HSR proposals. The executives of rail corporations, preferring the oligopolistic and very profitable freight business, play along. Their tactics include smothering passenger service with nostalgic sweet nothings: “I loved to travel by train,” oozed a Southern Pacific exec back in 1976, setting the tone for this ongoing line of crap. “But, like a lot of other things, trains have served their purpose,” he explained. “It’s just a new world.” Wow, how’s that for the old entrepreneurial, free enterprise, go-get-’em attitude to make America great?
This is illegal. Federal law clearly says: “Amtrak has preference over freight transportation in using a rail line.” But the freight train giants feel free to thumb their noses at Amtrak passengers, routinely putting them “in the hole,” as dispatchers call it. That’s because congress has provided no funding to enforce this law. Today’s train robbers, you see, are no longer on horseback; they’re in Congress!
Wreck of the Old 188
On Tuesday, May 12, at about 9:30 pm, Amtrak’s train number 188 was making good time on its run from Washington to New York. The seven-car train was whistling along at 106 MPH as it approached the Franklin Junction rail yard in Philadelphia. But that was most unfortunate, for there’s a sharp curve there with a speed limit of 50 mph. The train hurtled off the tracks and broke apart in a catastrophic crash. All the cars rolled over and were crumpled or mangled, eight people were killed, and most of the 238 passengers and crew of five were injured.
We don’t know yet why the experienced engineer took that familiar curve at such an impossible speed, but we do know one thing: Number 188 did not have an operating safety system called positive train control (PTC) that would have prevented this disaster. Why not? Because Congress had imposed both budgetary and ideological restrictions on the agency’s ability to implement the system. You see, PTC operates through wireless radio frequencies on public airwaves (such as those that provide service to mobile phones). But rather than simply setting aside an exclusive frequency for this crucial safety technology, boneheaded “free-enterprise” lawmakers decreed that Amtrak has to beg for frequencies from telecomunications corporations. Telecom giants have resisted leasing them the spectrum, so while Train 188 was actually fitted with PTC equipment, it did not have the access to frequencies necessary to turn the safety system on!
In addition, while congress has mandated that Amtrak implement the very expensive PTC, Republican leaders of Congress have blocked any of the extra funding needed to finance it. When a reporter asked House Speaker John Boehner if the failure to fund the system had anything to do with the deadly crash in Pennsylvania, he snapped: “that’s a stupid question.”
Astonishingly, the morning after the derailment—even as rescuers were still searching for bodies—the GOP-controlled House appropriations committee coldly cut Amtrak’s already barebones budget by $260 million, while in the Senate, Republican senators killed a proposal for a modest $251 million increase in Amtrak funding to get PTC operational ASAP. “It’s absolutely stunning to me,” said an exasperated Ed Rendell0., Democratic senator from Pennsylvania. “It shows that ideology trumps reality, and it shows that cowardice reigns in Washington.”
Rendell nailed it in that one sentence. There is no economic, technological, geographic, budgetary, or conceptual barrier to our country having the best, most effective, state-of-the-art HSR service in the world. The reality is that the US is in the caboose of transportation innovation only because special-interest politics continue to thwart our national will, leaving you and me with a rickety, malfunctioning rail system that is a national embarrassment. It’s unforgivable that corporate and political leaders have intentionally failed to maintain, much less improve, the quality of America’s rail infrastructure for future generations. And the cowardice of congress critters who take special interest money to oppose the best policies for the common good is not only shamefully corrupt, but it’s a firing offense.
That’s where we come in. High-speed rail offers such huge benefits for us that we need to push it to the center of our policy demands, especially with a national election cycle already on us. Allies abound, and two major coalitions—the National Association of Railroad Passengers and US High Speed Rail Association—are already organizing around specific proposals, wielding a wealth of detailed studies, good factual materials, and attention-grabbing graphic presentations. As the old adage puts it, “politicians only see the light when they feel the heat.”
Despite attempts by conservative ideologues to kill the notion of a national passenger rail system, trains are only getting more popular. And why wouldn’t they be? Imagine how our lives would be improved by having high speed rail as a travel option. (How about traveling from Denver to Los Angeles in just over six hours—without the hassle of airports?) The US High Speed Rail Association has a map of what a national rail system could look like. Check it out at www.USHSR.com/ushsrmap.html.
Whether you’re a seasoned rider or completely new to long-distance trains, you can learn more from the US High Speed Rail Association and the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Each group offers ways for you to get involved and learn more about the potential of passenger rail.