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Straight Talk

Political candidates are not paying nearly enough attention to transportation. This is an issue that has historically been a target of Federal investment, as the United States is a far-flung empire with population centers widely distributed all over the country, in marked contrast to neighboring Canada, whose population is mainly in the south. In the northeast of our own country, an issue that threatens our livelihood is aging infrastructure. We built up both road and rail several decades ago to a highly developed level that encouraged our economy to prosper. However, that infrastructure is now old. The Pulaski Skyway is now a grande dame of long highway bridges, with its narrow lanes and lack of shoulders and rusting girders. Several of the highways are overcrowded, and the reliance on cars due to suburbanization of many people has led to traffic gridlock, particularly in cities with dense development that should be transit-compatible. Park and ride is a way to improve transit access and ridership, but it relies on at least one side of the commute - the work-oriented side - being friendly to transit. Even in very young, car oriented cities, with infrastructure well-designed for car travel, such as Phoenix, pollution and traffic can be a problem, and obesity is certainly an epidemic. Pollution, traffic, and obesity are all costly to our economy in medical bills, lost work time, lost consumption opportunities, and car accidents - we spend money on fixing up what we already have instead of truly investing in new goods and desirable services.

This is why transit and railroads are important. We are not paying as much attention as we should to transit with a dedicated right-of-way. The traditional modes of transportation with a dedicated right of way are railroads and trams, and people who don't like to fly would, all other things being equal, probably prefer a train to a bus, if they aren't driving. Trains are bigger, they are also wider, and they can conceivably be more efficient, making effective use of space. However, an enormous problem exists with long distance passenger rail in America as compared to long distance passenger rail in Europe.

It sucks.

First of all, the system is run by a monopoly. The fact that the government is funding it is not the problem. Its monopoly status is a problem, because competition would naturally improve customer service, if the goal is to improve customer service and ridership.

Second of all, there is still not nearly enough money being invested. If more were to be invested, passenger trains would run more frequently and ridership would be improved. However, I do not advocate just throwing money at the trains. That solves nothing and would only go to fatten up some individuals' wallets at the expense of railroad improvement. What is needed is investment in building dedicated passenger railroad right of way, and investment in the improvement of service, rolling stock, and rolling stock inventory management.

This brings us to the third point. Passenger railroad delays in the United States are very common because passenger trains use the old private freight rights-of-way, which freight railroads - with their much slower and often prioritized freight trains - own and use. (In the Northeast Corridor, the problem is a bit different - in that case, Amtrak essentially owns the line, and the case is one of passenger railroads trying to share the same line, which is probably what it should be. Nonetheless, some trains do wind up delayed because one of the railroads still individually owns the line and prioritizes its own trains.) With a dedicated passenger system, there would be less trouble with this approach, and taking the train to such places as Vegas and Phoenix would be more feasible.

Rolling stock inventory management should also be improved. One of the great criticisms of fiscal conservatives such as McCain has been that Amtrak's occupancy level is low per mile covered. What happens is that ridership fluctuates over a railroad line, unlike the case on a nonstop airline flight, and so intermediate riders might wind up filling up a train from one part on the middle of the line to another point on the middle of the line. This leads to trains running with empty rolling stock on much of their route, or half-filled rolling stock, etc. In order to solve or ameliorate this problem, there needs to be railyards along line, where cars that might otherwise go unused could be hitched up to the train en route, and then disconnected and other cars could be picked up as ridership fluctuates. This would help to save fuel and costs.

In the long run, perhaps the infrastructure could be improved upon. I do not necessarily mean monorail or maglev, although those two sound sexy. There are such things as "road trains" out there, in which short trains (or very long multi-trailer trucks, take your pick) use roads and highways to move around. A dedicated highway for trains on tires may sound strange, but a two-laner there would be more flexible than a railroad track - because you wouldn't need to go to a specialized connection between tracks to change lanes. Moreover, such trains could easily break up and move around city streets (if narrow enough) in the form of buses, or use rights-of-way easily converted from our highways, or be able to break down and pull over anywhere without having to cause delays due to route blocking. I suspect the ride would be potentially smoother, too.

However, for the time being, steel-wheel-on-steel-rail investment - and heavy investment at that - is the way to go, as it provides an escape route with which to beat traffic and the hazards of getting tired when driving, sleeplessness in the skies, and crampiness of buses. It also helps to keep service on the passenger railroads from sucking. I hope to one day research ways of improving our long-distance passenger railroad system.

Finally, railroads are perhaps over-regulated. This is nothing new. When railroads were once the only good way of getting around, they extorted farmers and passengers out of their money, and so anti-rail sentiment led to a massive weight of regulation on railroads, including passenger railroads. Long-distance rail regulation ought to be looser, and railroads would compete in much the manner airlines have after deregulation - except that subsidies would help to guide the companies to increase quality of service. It is quality that is the key, as much as costs are.

Granted, airlines are also very important to this far-flung realm we call America, and they are subject to many of the same problems as the railroads - but at least they are competitive. However, much of this competition is simply cost-driven, leading to passengers being crowded like sardines on the planes. Costs are important to watch, but so is quality. Thus, a system should be set up in which airlines and railroads are rewarded for quality improvements as well as for cost-minimizing and budget-maximizing. Sometimes costs might need to be added onto in order to improve service quality. However, doing this would benefit riders. In doing so, it would benefit America, too.

I am Richard Rabinowitz and I approve of this message. Rickyrab 20:17, 20 January 2008 (EST)

Which transportation mode are you?

Important Places

  1. New York City
  2. Lenapehoking


In Memoriam

George Warrington

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