Wednesday, December 02, 2009

On My Nightstand: Waiting on a Train

Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service--A Year Spent Riding across America by James McCommons, is the latest book to grace my nightstand. It recalls highlights and lowlights of rail travel across the nation. There are some very well utilized rail corridors, and then there are routes that are extremely scenic that are or should be tourist destinations in their own right.

McCommons thinks that the solution may be at hand with President Obama's commitment to high speed rail, but I think he's sorely mistaken on that point. Spending money on new infrastructure when there's insufficient funding for maintenance and rehabilitation of existing rail infrastructure is a part of the reason rail travel in the US is in such dire straits.

Some states are trying to take it upon themselves to fund rail travel in their states, but the subsidies do not cover the costs, and there are calls for raising the gas taxes to cover rail infrastructure improvements.

Time and time again, the claim is made in the book that rail travel would compete well with air travel and cars, but I think that argument goes only so far. It might compete with cars for short hauls, if rail service were frequent and managed a good service record of on-time performance. Medium haul runs into air travel's benefits of speed to destination and cost.

At long distance, there is no comparison in cost and time between rail and air travel; air travel wins.

That's why there are short and medium distance routes that should be targeted for improvement.

Then, there are issues with expanding rail infrastructure that go unremarked upon. That includes the NIMBY issues facing the creation of new rights of way and opposition in some areas to increased rail traffic because of grade-level crossings, and other similar issues.

Cost is another hurdle that would have to be overcome, particularly in bringing existing infrastructure up to modern standards.

Consider too the choices made by the federal government and Amtrak, including on their flagship Acela service. Those trains have never lived up to their billing, and that's due to a combination of mechanical faults and infrastructure issues of trying to shoehorn a high speed rail system onto a standard speed and freight network.

Still, this is a good book to expose many of the issues facing the rail industry and hopes for passenger rail in the US.

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