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

9 Responses

  1. Spokker says:

    “There is no logical reason to accept insult and dismissal for holding a position that is readily embraced everywhere else on earth.”

    Yet in the past you have insulted those who enjoy riding trains, but not for the same reasons you do. You’ve criticized some for being too white, too old or too male. Since you like honesty and controversy, I thought I would mention it.

    Anyway, if I were to create a presentation about passenger rail for viewing in this country, I would call it, “Using the Right Tool for the Job.” Basically, every mode of transportation is just a tool, and your toolbox consists of the modes of transportation available to you.

    When we approach most situations in the past, we’ve only considered one tool, the personal automobile. The car is a great invention and has done a lot for economic growth and mobility. The problem with the car are its costs, when used for the wrong purposes, become very great and must be mitigated or else we all die (I would tone that down for the presentation). Also, not everyone is able to receive the benefit of a personal automobile, and those people have something to contribute to society too.

    The train is just another tool, which is great for travel in urban areas (especially in and out of downtown), and medium distance regional corridors where flying would be overkill (LA-SF, LA-Vegas, come on, these are high speed rail corridors. Lose the airplanes here).

    Complementing trains are buses, bike lanes and pedestrian amenities, to name a few things. So that’s where I would start.

  2. Cal says:

    With some luck and drive you will be able to come here to Cali and ride those Blue and Gold beauties say around 2018-2020!! keep up the good work

  3. Pat, I think you’ve already met your 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.” That’s one reason I monitor this site: unlike most pro-rail sites, you tolerate the occasional inputs from others with different technology-solution viewpoints, such as mine from the high-speed maglev perspective. Knowing the atmosphere here is accepting of such comments keeps me interested and allows me to experience a wider range of news and opinion than I typically can stand from other more strident pro-rail sites.

    Keep up the good work.

  4. Pat,

    You have done an excellent job with this site. I have followed it, usually on my lunch break, for nearly 2 years. We don’t always agree and that is fine. Bruce Richardson of URPA “fame” and I don’t always agree either but we still break bread together often as he does not work far from where I do.

    Spokker, I will take exception to your comments. You made no mention of Long Distance trains, so I see you as a corridorist which is, in some ways, the mortal enemy of those of that espouse all kinds of trains. Long distance is my greatest need, the Sunset Route in particular, for without it, I am forced to submit myself to stuffing in a sardine can for 2 hours everytime I go to visit my children, who went to college at Baylor U., and then stayed in Texas. We need the medium and short corridors for frequent local service, I would say a minimum of 4 frequencies each way, each day, and we need to have at least 2 frequencies each way on long distance corridors, 12 hours apart.

    Sullivan, Resident of N.E.Florida

  5. Anonymous says:

    Congrats on your 2nd anniversary. I, too, enjoy this blog and forward items from TFA to other blogs and friends as appropriate.
    We truly are in need of a balanced rail transport system in North America and TFA is one of the places where one can find proponents whose underlying goal is the accomplishment of this task. How we make up for 75 years of neglect is subject to much interpretation, and many opinions seem to find their way here, which your readers clearly appreciate.
    All the best, Pat and Logan, and my your “hits” quadruple this year!

  6. Spokker says:

    Jerry, that’s because I don’t see long distance trains being big boosters of economic activity like regional and urban services. I still support the government subsidizing long distance trains for two reasons. One, they provide a link to less urban areas not well served by airlines and two, I think an argument can be made that they are a national treasure. Some of these routes are beautiful. I think that’s worth preserving.

    So in my utopia the Sunset Limited would still be there, and it would go all the way to Florida and depart once a day. Funding these routes is really nothing in the grand scheme of things.

  7. Rick Moore says:

    If you think a single-payer health care system will open the door to funding for high speed trains, I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed. Single-payer will not reduce costs to the federal government – it can only increase them as government takes on more of the health care costs for Americans. It will be a disaster for the economy and for any other programs looking for federal dollars.

    As far as the sub-prime crisis goes, you’re blaming the wrong people. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae collapsed because Democrats like Barney Frank and Chris Dodd demanded they keep making bad loans to people who couldn’t pay for them. The companies that were feeding loans into these organizations kept lending rather than face charges of racism and red-lining. Yes, they were making big bucks, but Congress wouldn’t allow proper regulatory oversight because of key Democrats who stopped it at every turn.

    Your trains are toast with these people in charge.

  8. Allan says:

    I appreciate the site for the rail news and for the overall civil tone in the debates and disagreements. Altho, truthfully, lately I have begun to notice a slippage into name-calling and ad hominem attacks … neither of which advances an argument.

    I don’t understand your linkage between healthcare and rail. It is more likely, in the long run, that socialized medicine will mean less money for rail. Gov’t healthcare will demand even more money in the future and congress will look to squeeze a few more dollars out of programs like Amtrak and NASA to pay for healthcare.

    The only way that socialized medicine can help Amtrak would be that Amtrak could dump its health care costs for its employees directly onto the gov’t.

    Pat-“The elephant in the room is that highways do not begin to cover their costs…”

    I’ve repeatedly shown this statement not only to be false but also to be irrelevant even if it were true. See my remarks:

    Pat – “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.”

    Amtrak is dragging its feet. See my remarks:

    Pat – “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.”

    I agree that long distance trains are important but I’m still not convinced that Amtrak shares this vision. I also agree that emphasis on “High Performance Rail” (HPR) is more important than HSR. In fact, I am more in line with Larry Blow, if you want “High Speed” then maglev is usually the better and cheaper (in most cases) technology than HSR. Having said that, HPR will allow more bang for the buck than HSR or maglev.

    Rick Moore … I pretty much agree with your analysis.

  9. As for service east of NewOrleans, Pat, Amtrak is not only dragging its feet, it has thrown out every anchor it has. The report is heavily biased toward the greatest cost, and least ridership and those of us that actively support return of the service see this as nothing but a smokescreen to keep it from returning.

    AGreed, highways are the really BIG ELEPHANT in the room, but I agree with you philosophically Pat, that if the health care debate fails, it will open the door to many other failures as well, and also to a likely dismissal of the democratic congress in 2010, as well as Obama in 2012. While some interests might like that to happen, it would be a total disaster for passenger rail and likely my great-grandchildren would be dealing with the same problems we have today.

    Agreed, getting a bunch of new trains running, or a return of some that were cut or “truncated” might cost $100M, but that much has been spent in Iraq in less than a day, so $100M is less than peanuts in the grand scheme, whatever the grand scheme is??

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