I’ve written before that one of the things that Pam and I value highly is good mass transit. We’ve ridden trains in France (and I’ve ridden them in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and the UK in the past) and it has always struck me that well-run, modern, clean and efficient train travel is an indicator of how civilized your country is, if not the overall quality of life for that country’s citizenry. The ‘common good’, a concept that has all but vanished in the States, is embodied in a very visible way in trains on a daily basis to millions of people. With the end of the era of cheap oil rapidly approaching, we should be getting trains ready to handle more commuters and long distance travelers. There is no passenger airplane that operates on anything but petroleum-based fuel. High-speed trains can run on electricity, without fuel cells, newly designed engines or anything else that requires massive retooling or technological leaps. Other countries learned decades ago that a good network of trains can reap benefits far outweighing the costs of running them; only the US has this strange notion that its passenger trains are not a public service, but instead have to be profitable ventures. They also keep promoting the use of fossil fuels, global warming and congested highways. You know, The American Way of Life.
So, it was with a great deal of distress that I read this headline in the New York Times this morning: Amtrak Breakup Advances. In an unannounced vote that was “reported on Wednesday in the newsletter of the United Rail Passenger Alliance of Jacksonville, Fla., an organization that has been highly critical of Amtrak management”, Amtrak’s 4-person Board approved the carving off the Northeast corridor of Amtrak, the routes between Boston and Washington (the ones I used to ride on), as a ‘separate division’. This is one of the biggest changes to the organization, and would on the one hand “relieve Amtrak from spending billions of dollars to build and rebuild bridges, rails and electrical systems, but still let the company run its trains.” Most importantly, and the one that makes me the saddest:
The plan would also remove Amtrak from control of that sector, a condition that the railroad’s senior executives say would doom high-speed long-distance service. Managers say they have to be able to give their trains priority over local traffic if they have any hope of keeping their schedules.
Further down in the article, it’s clear what’s really going on:
Amtrak supporters saw darker motives in the board’s vote. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, one of four main sponsors of a bipartisan bill to shore up the railroad, said separating the corridor was intended to package it for a change in ownership.
“The Bush administration wants to hold a fire sale on Amtrak and dump its best asset, the Northeast Corridor,” Mr. Lautenberg said in a statement. “Selling the Northeast corridor is the first step in President Bush’s plan to destroy Amtrak and intercity rail service in America.”
I loved the Acela train for all of its flaws. I took it from Boston to New York a few times over the brief time it was running while I lived there, and always found the trip far more enjoyable than the Delta shuttle or driving our car. Flying was and is a huge hassle, now made even more expensive on the one hand by the price of fuel, and uncomfortable and stressful due to the security measures guarding against terrorism. On the Acela, I got on board in downtown Boston, at the comfortable and familiar South Station (right from the local subway from my house in Cambridge). I didn’t have to check my bags or resort to the long lines by radar detectors. I arrived at Penn Station in New York City, and although that’s not the gorgeous Grand Central Station (one of my favorite places in the US), I didn’t have to take a cab to or from an airport at either end of the journey. While the train wasn’t the cheapest game in town (the Fung Wah bus from Chinatown had everybody beat by a mile in that department), there was nothing nicer than having breakfast as we pulled out of Boston, watching a DVD on my laptop (and plugging it in to the wall outlets), watching the scenes of Connecticut seashore, viewing the approach of the big city in the windows and arriving in Manhattan by early afternoon, relaxed and ready for business, visiting with friends or sightseeing.
Here in Vancouver, they are not tearing apart mass transit. In fact, over some opposition over exactly where and how it was being built, Vancouver is building a new mass transit line called the RAV (Richmond-Airport-Vancouver), which is a rail-based system linking Vancouver with the airport to the west and Richmond to the south. It’s part of the project to get the city able to accommodate the Winter Olympics in 2010.
A final bit of irony on that web page for the New York Times article: One of the most prominent ads in the right sidebar area was a set for the Hummer H3.