Mass Transportation

In the same way that electric motivation is far superior to combustion, trains operating on fixed rails are the most efficient means of mass transportation and further, electric trains are, far and away, the best way to go.

Some years ago I was treated to a theater-of-the-absurd example of the deficiency of relying on diesel power for commuter train service on a trip from downtown Chicago to the suburbs. Imagine boarding a train in a semi-enclosed space with several large diesel locomotives roaring away at ear deranging levels and spewing their noxious fumes. Once it got going every time the train started and stopped - obviously frequently since it was a commuter train - it was a long, slow, lumbering process.

When you contrast that with electric trains that are non-polluting at point of use and much cleaner overall, nearly silent, accelerate and decelerate very quickly and smoothly and cost a lot less to operate and maintain, there really is no long term sense whatever in diesel locomotion.

Once again General Motors’ abhorrence of electric transportation enters the picture. Similarly to its crushing of perfectly good electric cars in the 1990’s, in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s GM purchased transit systems all over America, at the time privately owned, and promptly discarded whatever electric buses and streetcars they were using in favor of diesel buses. It was a great loss to America and its cities. GM was eventually hauled into court, convicted of unfair business practices and fined a whopping $5000; even back then, cigar money for one exec.

Using electricity for railways and public transportation does have its drawbacks; primarily the cost of the necessary infrastructure of power stations and wires and the unsightliness of the wires. Laying of rails is also expensive, though in the case of urban transportation there’s the option of electric buses. The latter have the advantage of being able to go around traffic blockages compared to vehicles on fixed rails just getting stuck, but they are not as efficient. Most importantly, regardless of mode, once you’ve made the infrastructure expenditure, daily operations are much simpler and cheaper.

As to the wires it should be possible to dispense with continuous wires by using the hybrid concept to create a battery power/mains power electric bus or train that could charge its batteries at every transit stop. At the least all urban buses should be diesel/electric hybrids since they contain many of the advantages of all-electric vehicles; that is, they are more efficient overall and are able to operate solely in electric mode in congested areas, thus much quieter and cleaner where it matters most.  

Well, what is the prognosis that any of this conversion to electricity will happen? Remote, for sure. For example, the US Congress is considering a two-year $1.8 billion program to assist local transportation systems in light of their rising costs and the general public need. This is a piddling amount, like throwing crumbs to a starving man: he may survive but his hunger won’t be slaked. Nine hundred million is the cost of building one urban light rail line.

Let’s see: Every year the US government provides a $12 billion subsidy for air travel, $16 billion in corporate welfare for the oil companies and $34 billion for highways, but when Amtrak asks for a measly $1 billion or so there’s gnashing of teeth and rending of clothes at the audacity of the train service begging for a subsidy… “If Amtrak can’t make it on its own, it should be shut down” is the prevailing philosophy.

Meanwhile, if the US were to have a functional comprehensive urban and national electric transportation system in place in ten years when oil will be prohibitively expensive, nothing less than a trillion dollars – about the cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars - would begin to tackle the need. That expenditure would provide extensive national coverage for moderate speed trains – up to 80mph – and fast trains – 125 to 150mph – for the most densely populated corridors. That would also provide an average $5 billion for transit improvements for each of America’s 50 largest cities.

Moreover, the problem is not how to make America functional, it’s how to keep the planet from destroying itself. An additional trillion dollars would also cover the entire world with rails; they are desperately needed in many parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Take Cambodia for instance. As part of a regional program to have a train line capable of at least 50 mph operating from Singapore through Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to Kunming in southwest China, $180 million has been donated to upgrade Cambodia’s existing lines and build a new connection between Phnom Penh and Vietnam. Add a few hundred million for new lines to connect very important additional Cambodian population centers and electrification of the system and the country’s transportation sector would be transformed. The result would be a significant reduction in oil consumption and corollary greenhouse gas emissions.

Consider: there’s no such thing as a 4-lane highway in Cambodia. At most they are a wide 2 lanes with a shoulder suitable for motorbikes. In many sections they are very rough or crowded and therefore bus service is slow. Fast, smooth, comfortable, very efficient trains would be immeasurably better than the current options.

All passenger service was suspended a couple years back after a derailment. Before then top speed was 18 miles per hour and a 95 mile trip took me 9 hours. There were no passenger cars on the route I took, only box cars where people sat on piles of logs or 50 kilo sacks of salt or hung their hammocks like I did. It was great fun but no substitute for a real train system.

In its own context, Amtrak is hardly better. Yes, its trains, especially in the west, are very comfortable and fast on the straightaway – up to 80 mph – and the Northeast corridor between Boston and Washington, DC is well served, including even faster trains, but outside of that, coverage is dismal and some lines are hardly ever on time.

I’ve had the occasion to use Amtrak several times in the past few years on the West Coast and from Portland to Minneapolis. I love the experience. If you’re not in a hurry, it’s pleasant and fun and if you’re on the train for any length of time – the Portland-Minneapolis run takes 36 hours – you become part of an impromptu community of a cross-section of America. In most cases it’s also cheaper than air travel, especially now with rocketing fuel prices, and of course your energy footprint is far less.

However, though you may not be in a hurry, it’s still very frustrating to arrive at your destination hours late. It’s especially rankling when it’s not even Amtrak’s fault. Last summer on a trip from Santa Barbara to Oakland the train was 4 hours late. Two major delays were the freight railway’s responsibility. In one case we got stuck behind a freight train that couldn’t make it up a steep hill; we had to wait till its engines cooled off enough to make another stab at it. Another involved signal malfunctions which required us to move very slowly for a considerable distance; once again the responsibility of the railroad.

Except for the northeast corridor where Amtrak has its own dedicated lines, it rents track space from the railroad companies. This is especially problematical in the West where most lines are single track. What that means is when two trains meet in opposite directions, one has to wait on a siding till the other passes. So there you are, stopped in the middle of nowhere for ten or twenty minutes while you wait for a slow freight to pass. For a measly ten or twenty billion dollars, large areas of the west could be double tracked and hours would be taken off long runs.

Most people in the know feel that the railways purposely give Amtrak’s needs short shrift because passenger trains are just a bother to them. While there’s probably some truth to that, in their defense the railways can hardly design proper schedules when Amtrak is late so often. Once Amtrak is off schedule, further delays are inevitable.

I’ve been on trains in a dozen Asian and European countries. In every case where overnight service is offered a second class sleeper option is included. Amtrak offers only one class of sleeper, equivalent to first class, which costs three times as much as a coach seat. Amtrak’s seats are large and comfortable and they recline very far but I really can’t sleep very well on anything that isn’t horizontal. In Europe and Asia, in addition to private cabins similar to Amtrak’s sleepers, you have the option of bunks in shared spaces at a much more reasonable fare than first class.

At any rate, no level of improved mass transportation is even remotely likely to take place in the necessary time frame to allow the US to remain functional in light of spectacular rises in fossil fuel prices likely to happen in the near future – rest assured, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Even if the work started now it would not be soon enough. There is no crash program in the cards, and only the barest recognition of how important it is.

Moreover, on a world scale, it is unthinkable that the US would spend even one/tenth as much on desperately needed developing world transportation improvements as it has already spent on stupid, futile, counterproductive wars.