I missed a transportation holiday a couple of weeks ago, but Kunstler gave me the opportunity to commemorate it with his Monday rant on the sad state of our passenger rail system in Dead Nation Walking.
Many people seem to think that America has lost its sense of purpose. They overlook the obvious: that we are striving to become the Bulgaria of the western hemisphere. At least we already have enough vampires to qualify.Follow over the jump for my comments and a reply to them.
You don’t have to seek further than the USA’s sub-soviet-quality passenger railroad system, which produced the spectacular Philadelphia derailment last week that killed eight people and injured dozens more. Six days later, we’re still waiting for some explanation as to why the train was going 100 miles-per-hour on a historically dangerous curve within the city limits.
One reason Americans prefer to drive — say, from Albany, NY, to Boston — is that there is only one train a day, it never leaves on time or arrives on time, and it takes twice as long as a car trip for no reason that makes any sense. Of course, this is exactly the kind of journey ( slightly less than 200 miles) that doesn’t make sense to fly, either, given all the dreary business of getting to-and-from the airports, not to mention the expense of a short-hop plane ticket.
I take the popular (and gorgeous!) Hudson River Amtrak train between Albany and New York several times a year because bringing a car into Manhattan is an enormous pain in the ass. This train may have the highest ridership in the country, but it’s still a Third World experience. The heat or the AC is often out of whack, you can’t buy so much as a bottle of water on the train, the windows are gunked-over, and the seats are often broken. They put wifi on trains a couple of years ago but it cuts out every ten minutes.
Nowhere on earth is there passenger rail that pays for itself. But, of course, you don’t hear anyone complain about the public subsidies for driving or air travel. Who do you think pays for the interstate highway system? What major airport is privately owned and operated?
Some of the decisions made over our rail system are so dumb you wonder how the executives on board ever got their jobs. For instance the train between New York City and Chicago never runs on time for the simple reason that Amtrak sold the right-of-way to the CSX freight line. CSX then tore up the second track because there was an antiquated state real estate tax on railroad tracks. As a result, freight trains have priority on the single track and the passenger trains have to pull over on sidings every time a freight needs to go by. Earth calling the New York state legislature. Rescind the stupid tax.
America is going to need trains more than it thinks right now, despite what the “free market” says. The condition of our trains is symptomatic of the shape of the nation. The really sad part is we missed the window of opportunity to build a high-speed system. Capital will soon be too scarce for that. But we still have a conventional network that not so many decades ago was the envy of the world, and we know exactly how to fix it. We just don’t want to.
Before I mentioned National Train Day, I brought up a story from class.
Every semester, I show "The End of Suburbia" to my students. Our host's comment about the U.S. having "a rail system the Bulgarians would be ashamed of" usually goes right over their heads; they're more worried about what peak oil will do to roads and cars. One semester, I had a woman from Bulgaria in class. She was offended by that comment. "In Bulgaria, we have good trains!" She also described how good the streetcars are. She didn't realize that she was making our host's point for him instead of rebutting him.Petro agreed with me.
I also feel sorry for our host when he takes the train into NYC. I used to take the train from Detroit to Chicago for much the same reasons, and I could at least buy dinner and a beer in the cafeteria car. However, the same problem, that the tracks belong to CSX, so their freight trains have priority, applies. I've often wished that Amtrak had a designated track for passenger rail; I got tired of waiting for freight trains to pass.
Speaking of getting people out of cars, the week just past had two days for it. May 9th was National Train Day, a day set aside by Amtrak to commemorate the driving of the Golden Spike that completed the first transcontinental railroad. The day also exists to spread information about the advantages of rail travel. I don't know if our host knew about the occasion, but he's doing his part. Also, last Friday was Bike to Work Day. That got more notice. Here in Detroit, there were five organized group rides from the suburbs to downtown. In addition, the number of people commuting by bike in Michigan has increased 69% since 2000.
I’ve had decent experiences on the train, and had awful experiences. The last time we took the Detroit-Chicago route, I swore, “never again.” Coming back took EIGHT HOURS, and that was after a two hour wait crammed in that miserable, dirty, claustrophobia-inducing underground gate area. It seems we could have walked back to Detroit in less time.I've never had it that bad, so I feel sorry for him.
Bill Pilgrim mentioned another issue that appears in "The End of Suburbia," so I responded to him, too.
"The greatest ‘crime of the century’ in the US was...the systematic dismantling and destruction last mid-century of efficient rail mass transit systems in cities and metropolitan areas around the country by a consortium of fossil fuel, tire, and auto companies."That last entry I shared deserves more love, and it's finally getting it.
Welcome to the kernel of truth at the heart of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" I call the story Judge Doom and the Red Car.
Speaking of links that deserve more love, I could also have shared Why do Tea Partiers hate high-speed rail? The next time Kunstler rants about trains, I might do that. If so, I would probably pair it with The Plot Against Trains in The New Yorker, which updates the same points more elegantly.
The horrific Amtrak derailment outside Philadelphia this week set off some predictable uncertainty about what exactly had happened—a reckless motorman? An inadequate track? A missing mechanical device? Some combination of them all?—and an even more vibrant set of arguments about the failure of Americans to build any longer for the common good. Everyone agrees that our rail system is frail and accident-prone: one tragedy can end the service up and down the entire path from Boston to Washington, and beyond, for days on end. And everyone knows that American infrastructure—what used to be called our public works, or just our bridges and railways, once the envy of the world—has now been stripped bare, and is being stripped ever barer.Given what Kunstler thinks of "corn pone fascists," pointing out that they are the same people who are in the way of improving rail and other public infrastructure projects might produce a reactio0n I'd enjoy reading. It might even be productive.
What is less apparent, perhaps, is that the will to abandon the public way is not some failure of understanding, or some nearsighted omission by shortsighted politicians. It is part of a coherent ideological project. As I wrote a few years ago, in a piece on the literature of American declinism, “The reason we don’t have beautiful new airports and efficient bullet trains is not that we have inadvertently stumbled upon stumbling blocks; it’s that there are considerable numbers of Americans for whom these things are simply symbols of a feared central government, and who would, when they travel, rather sweat in squalor than surrender the money to build a better terminal.” The ideological rigor of this idea, as absolute in its way as the ancient Soviet conviction that any entering wedge of free enterprise would lead to the destruction of the Soviet state, is as instructive as it is astonishing. And it is part of the folly of American “centrism” not to recognize that the failure to run trains where we need them is made from conviction, not from ignorance.