Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Why intercity buses aren’t the answer

As readers of this blog surely know, the recent surge in gas prices has helped Amtrak achieve record ridership levels. Congress has finally given the company a legislative boost. Things are generally looking up for passenger rail, right?

But Amtrak isn’t the only one benefitting from high fuel costs. New bus companies such as Megabus have grown even more rapidly, and are particularly popular with the coveted “young and hip” crowd. A casual observer (or the Heritage Foundation) might wonder why America would bother with rail transit at all. The Interstate system already reaches far more destinations than Amtrak, why can’t a more energy efficient future involve buses instead of trains?

The first mistake is to assume that rail’s only advantage is energy efficiency and emissions. It’s true, trains are certainly more environmentally friendly than cars or planes, but that can’t be all we focus on. Radio is more efficient than television, does that make it better? When compared to bus travel, the superiority of rail springs from its image, luxury, and speed.

The most obvious problem with buses is that they have a serious image problem. And perhaps deservedly so. Usually not very clean to begin with, many Greyhound terminals are in dilapidated areas of towns. In my hometown of Knoxville, the Greyhound station is the absolute epicenter of crime and violence in the city. As rail transportation developed in America long before the advent of buses and automobile sprawl, train stations were built in the core downtown area of towns, and many have remained there since. The image of these old stations, with their grand architecture, will always trump the dank Greyhound terminal in the mind of the public.

Although most probably haven’t taken an actual rail trip, Americans are raised on the mystique of trains. Have you ever seen a kid playing with a model Greyhound fleet? Would the Polar Express really be so charming as the Polar Megabus? This blog is about the future of trains, not their past, but it’s hard to deny that this historical legacy makes them more appealing to the public.

But trains aren’t just superior in the mind’s eye. A passenger train car and an intercity bus vehicle are two very different places. Buses, like planes, pack people in like sardines. Once you’re in your seat, moving around the cabin is an exercise in balance and politeness, and you don’t have anywhere to go except the bathroom anyway. Trains, on the other hand, generally provide much more space per passenger, and offer an environment where people can not only comfortably walk around, but can also have destinations to walk to, such as a dining car.

However, the real advantage of rail comes down to one thing: speed. Buses are slow. Unless you’re a [very] long-distance cyclist or a hitchhiker, buses are the slowest way to get from city to city. Not that some Amtrak routes aren’t far behind, but the issue is that we can make trains go faster. Buses have long reached their limit. High-speed rail is proven method of travel. High-speed bus is an oxymoron.

If we want to get travellers off of planes, we need to give them an experience and a speed that’s comprable to air travel. If we want to get drivers off of roads, we’ll need to tempt them with an MPH that would make any highway patrol officer cringe. Buses can’t do any of this. They’ll never be able to compete with air travel, never be able to give drivers a faster option, never become a real solution to our transportation issues.

NOTE: I’m also a firm believer in light/heavy rail over “Bus Rapid Transit” on the local level. But this isn’t a mass transit blog, so I’ll simply provide a link to a very excellent piece on the issue from the Seattle Transit Blog.

Filed under: Amtrak, United States High Speed Rail, , , , ,

John McCain’s True Colors

Nobody should be surprised. The presumed Republican presidential nominee is a clone of the present failed president, and in that regard he is much worse.

TFA does not make political endorsements for a number of perfectly good reasons. First, Democrats pay lip  service to progressive domestic polices and deliver nothing. Jimmy Carter is without doubt the most ardently anti-Amtrak president so far. Both political parties are owned by big energy companies, truckers, airlines and the favored few special interests who are the exclusive lords of transportation policy. 

John McCain will make a major announcement today. You can read all about it in the Politico blog.

McCain promises to balance budget

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Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) plans to promise on Monday that he will balance the federal budget by the end of his first term by curbing wasteful spending and overhauling entitlement programs, including Social Security, his advisers told Politico. 

The vow to take on Social Security puts McCain in a political danger zone that thwarted President Bush after he named it the top domestic priority of his second term.

McCain is making the pledge at the beginning of a week when both presidential candidates plan to devote their events to the economy, the top issue in poll after poll as voters struggle to keep their jobs and fill their gas tanks. 

“In the long-term, the only way to keep the budget balanced is successful reform of the large spending pressures in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid,” the McCain campaign says in a policy paper to be released Monday. 

“The McCain administration would reserve all savings from victory in the Iraq and Afghanistan operations in the fight against Islamic extremists for reducing the deficit. Since all their costs were financed with deficit spending, all their savings must go to deficit reduction.” 

One does not need to be some sort of gifted political strategist to realize that if John McCain is willing to let elderly Americans freeze to death and die a merciless death of starvation, he certainly does not care about transportation policy or any long-range policy that might be helpful to those of us who work for a living. 

His policies are distinctly elitist and an homage to the administration of George W. Bush.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

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July 2008