Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

July 2009, State of the Trains for America blog

My fellow Americans and citizens of the cosmos,

First and foremost, we at Trains for America try not to take ourselves too seriously, In the current political and economic climate, that is no small task. As this is being written, this internet conversation approaches two important hallmarks. TFA is now two years old and is approaching a milestone of 200,000 hits.

For many larger sites, this may not seem like much but we think it is quite a privilege to address around 800 readers on a typical working day. It is also noteworthy that around 15% of these visitors are from foreign countries. Each of you is appreciated.

TFA was born out of my desire to ventilate a strong personal opinions about rail passenger issues. My newspaper editors and radio employers would probably expect a more diverse coverage of events and issues, but my own blog was to be a sanctuary for my “quirky” interests.

It seemed apparent that, if I was going to need to be more than a nostalgic yearning for the days that are long lost. It was also clear that the site would take on a strong contrarian tone in view of the domination by aviation and trucking, coupled with the stout opposition of most operating rail companies.

All of this was changed by the election of Barack Obama. The most immediate and noticeable consequence of this event, for the personal perspective, is the explosion of readership on the TFA blog, which was previously 300 readers on any outstanding day.

While it is a pleasure to have, for once, an occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue who appreciates the social and economic benefits of decent ground transportation, the times are still full of danger. Republicans unambiguously state their desire to “break” the president.

The political climate is overly influenced by an elitist neo-conservative faction that is completely insulated from all economic fallout from bad policy and does not give a tinker’s damn what happens to regular people. For proof, I propose the subprime mortgage collapse in whch millions of small people suffered and the people who caused it drifted away on golden parachutes.

The current battle over health care reform is for all the marbles. If there is not some sort of strong federal option (single payer?), the drug manufacturers and health insurance companies will have won a magnificent victory at the cost of working people and small business. Should this occur, aviation and highway interests will move quickly to crush HSR developments and improvements in Amtrak.

Transportation policy is very much connected to health care reform and larger fiscal issues that congress must decide. Of course, infrastructure is a thousand times more effective than income redistribution to bankers, but we should never expect simple rationality to triumph in political debate.

The truth is that, in a country that enshrines free speech as one of its highest virtues, it is just about impossible to have an honest discussion on anything. That is because “some people” have elected to pursue the option of winning at any cost.

From the more parochial standpoint, high speed rail seems to have emerged from the slums of public policy consideration. Even if that revival is on account of perceived benefits to the wealthy, we must not question good fortune.

Let us consider the times. Amtrak is preparing for a significant purchase of motive power and long distance passenger cars. Ground has been broken on a new Autotrain terminal. Beaumont will soon have a new station and its location hangs entirely on the will of local politicians.

Progressive Railroading reports the FRA “has received 278 pre-applications for high-speed rail (HSR) grants totaling $102 billion.” Now that is a lot of interest. When conservative Oklahoma gets in the discussion, things are really changing.

Nonetheless, truckers and aviation interests stand ready to oppose all improvements in alternative transportation at all costs. The elephant in the room is that highways do not begin to cover their costs and will demand support, no SUBSIDIES, from other sources.

Of course, in the trucker’s alternate universe, the rest of us are not entitled to any say on how the money is spent. Should drug manufacturers and health insurance companies succeed in “breaking” President Obama, there is little to prevent the final destruction of sensible transportation. Our battle is a tiny skirmish in the larger political landscape.

Nonetheless, there is some reason for optimism. Some big money special interests seem rail improvements as an aid to economic development, especially real estate. It is also notable that airlines have not protested the latest push for HSR in Texas, and Southwest is officially “neutral.”

TFA will be favorable to HSR connectivity with local transit and airports. We also like the “incremental” approach and the need to grow a rail passenger culture along many corridors. This is exactly the NARP position and the outlook from the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.

Long distance trains are an important part of a balanced national system and those trains should, over time, be expanded and improved to connect the regions and states. It appears that Amtrak shares this vision.

Amtrak has enjoyed something of a respite from the more than 30 years of non-stop struggle for survival. This has resulted in a comprehensive plan to provide daily Sunset service west of New Orleans and upgraded service between the Eagle and the Sunset. A report on alternatives for restoring service east of N. O. has been released. Equipment purchase have been proposed. Management has begun to manage. It’s tentative, but generally positive.

These developments have given TFA a wealth of material. The addition of Logan Nash as a regular contributor has contributed an informed and useful viewpoint for this conversation. Logan is a great writer and a clear thinker. The “generation gap” that exists between us has been nothing but favorable for the readers.

This site provides a source of current rail passenger news and commentary. My wish is that we could agresssively provide more independently generated stories and opinion pieces. There are important conferences that go uncovered for lack of resources. This is the “next level” and I have not figured out how to get there – yet.

It is most gratifying to be interviewed by journalists looking for pithy quotes of good background on rail stories. I am always available for that and I would like to develop an informative (“dog and pony”) multi-media rail passenger presentation to take on the road. (Or, maybe I could settle for a dancing bear.) I think there may be a “market” for this kind of overview.

It is our goal to create a favorable atmosphere in which people who support sensible transportation policy can meet and develop the language and background to successfully advocate a positive rail passenger position. There is no logical reason to accept insult and dismissal for holding a position that is readily embraced everywhere else on earth.

Your loyalty and comments are always appreciated. Thank you for reading Trains for America.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, United States High Speed Rail

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