Given President Mason's and other UI administrators' obvious priority on campus security -- spurred on by their having received their third email regarding bomb threats [Kurtis Hiatt, "String of Bomb Threats Continues," The Daily Iowan, August 30, 2007, p. A1] -- I'm sure they are, or soon will be, all over the Virginia Tech report. But they won't find it in the local papers.
Here are links to the New York Times' story and the entire Review Panel's lengthy report, broken down into pdf files, including its 70 recommendations -- all presumably of at least interest, if not direct applicability, to all U.S. colleges and universities.
Ian Urbina, "Virginia Tech Criticized for Actions in Shooting," New York Times, August 30, 2007.
The full Report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel, August 29, 2007, is available from Virginia Governor Tim Kaine's Web page.
Note, as I've blogged here before, that Virginia Tech's campus police are armed and yet -- as would often (if not near always) be the case in an unanticipated random shooting -- that made no difference in their ability to prevent the tragedy and deaths. At least one UI student, in a letter to the editor, has expressed the view of many that she would feel very much safer if the UI campus police were not armed than if they were. Thalia Sutton, "Arming Campus Won't Reassure Me," Des Moines Register, August 27, 2007.
Meanwhile, this morning's DI has a professionally balanced and well written review of campus opinion on the issue prior to the Regents' discussion at their regular meeting September 18 -- including what appears to be President Mason's leaning toward arming campus police while recognizing that "I'd feel safer if no one had guns" and "I'm not a fan of guns." Ben Fornell, "People Split on UI Police Guns," The Daily Iowan, August 30, 2007, p. A5.
I have a vague recollection of seeing railroad trolley car rails embedded in Iowa City's streets when I was a little boy. (No trolleys; just almost totally covered tracks). But that memory may come from another town. I certainly remember the CRANDIC ("Cedar Rapids and Iowa City") interurban line, with its depot down by the east side of the Burlington Street bridge, on the south side of the street, across from what was then Nagle's Lumber. The Rock Island Line was my usual means of getting to Des Moines or Chicago as a high school student when attending student organization meetings. I occasionally came home to Iowa City from Austin, Texas, during the 1950s on the "Katy" railroad. And I remember regularly commuting by trolley car in Washington, D.C., during what must have been the summer of 1957.
So it's not like passenger rail is new to me -- or to Iowa. But what's only been history may now be on the verge of coming back. (As Johnny Cash used to sing, "I hear that train a comin.'") A local group of railroad enthusiasts took the CRANDIC out of mothballs and rode it up and back to Cedar Rapids the other day. The local papers editorialized that it was a good idea.
Editorial, "If You Want Rail Service, Speak Up," The Gazette, August 28, 2007, p. A4.
Editorial, "Time to Jump on Board for Interurban Rail," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 28, 2007, p. A11.
From a tiny village in Switzerland my wife and I discovered we had access to two passenger rail services, both of which seemed to run every 20 minutes or so. In fact, our former U-High school mates who live there don't even bother to own a car. It's like they were living in downtown Manhattan and relying on the subway. (I had similar experiences traveling in Japan years ago, with trains criss-crossing that entire country on regular schedules.)
The entire country of Switzerland is only 15,940 square miles. Iowa, by contrast, is is 3.5 times that size: 56,276 square miles (26th in size among the 50 states). And yet Switzerland has 3145 miles of railroad, mostly for passenger trains. If Iowa had the equivalent amount of rail per square mile we'd have 11103 miles of rail criss-crossing our little state. It may surprise you to know, but we had almost that much about 1910. With the popularity of the automobile -- encouraged by the lobbying pressure of the auto, oil, contracting and cement industries (General Motors bought up Los Angeles urban rail, destroyed it, and replaced it with auto dealerships) -- we permitted Iowa's rail to decline over the years to the point that 10 years ago (the latest figures I could quickly find) it was 38% of that, at 4275 miles (almost exclusively used for freight). (Prior to that -- and General Motors' efforts to kill off rail -- most cities of any size were served by electric rail systems.)
Would it be expensive for America to go back to passenger trains? Of course. Everything's expensive. It all comes back to benefit-cost. And "compared to what"?
1. It's never going to be any cheaper to do than it is now. As big a fan as I am of "rails to trails" (for hiking, jogging and biking), a few "rails to rails" might not be a bad idea either.
2. Have you ever taken a look at the total taxpayer support provided the auto industry with our multi-billion-dollar road system (Interstates, state, county and city roads)? Or the locks along the Mississippi for the barge business?
Or the airline industry -- runways and airports, air traffic control and TSA, the 9/11 bailout, and the defense contracts (originally producing war planes, but inventing technology that then finds its way for free into commercial aircraft) -- which ends up benefiting a relatively small proportion of the American people? (The "externalities" associated with the fact that jet planes are a major contributor to global warming and the hole in the ozone makes the industry's claim on subsidy dollars even weaker.)
I used to time those Swiss passenger trains (and their big clocks on the depots). I keep my watch set to the atomic clock time, accurate to the second. So, apparently, do they. It was a rare occurrence for a train to vary by more than 10 seconds either way from the very minute it was scheduled to arrive.
Our Amtrak passenger train (from San Francisco to Chicago, by way of Mt. Pleasant) may arrive as much as four or five hours late by the time it gets to eastern Iowa.
But note: That's not all Amtrack's fault. It's been deliberately set up be a rail fail. It has to travel on rails owned by railroads in the freight business. And with a policy that puts freight profits over passenger punctuality, Amtrack trains have to find and sit on a side track waiting for the freight trains to pass.
I'm reminded of a joke in a collection from the 1920s called "On a Slow Train Through Arkansas." "How come the train's stopped?" a passenger asks the conductor. "Guess we must have caught up with those cows again," he's told.
For rail -- or any other public transportation system -- to work there has to be lots of it.
If you're within a walk of a Metro station in Washington, you can enter that underground system there, transfer at Washington's Union Station, get off the train at Pennsylvania Station in New York City, and take a subway to your ultimate Manhattan destination without ever exiting this point-to-point rail transportation system.
You can't count on people driving to Mt. Pleasant to wait 4 hours for a train to Chicago when they could have driven in less time than that. The trains need to meet people's schedules rather than people having to meet the trains' schedules.
And all that goes for Corridor trains between Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and maybe Amana.
To do it right we'd need to start by putting rail between Iowa's major population centers, and out to the primary locations where the employees in those urban centers live. And we'd need to have additional transportation from depots to ultimate destinations. And the trains would have to run with sufficient regularity that people would be willing to accept their benefits in exchange for the additional flexibility offered by the automobile. (We might also want to take a second look at the Swiss roadbeds that produce the super-smooth rides, in part, by attaching the rails to the ties with six heavy nuts and bolts rather than a single spike.)
The benefits would be enormous in terms of economics, consumption of energy with its attendant seeming need for Middle East wars, global warming, and commuters' increased productivity and reduction of stress.
We did it once. Will we do it again? In my lifetime? I'm watching -- but I'm not going to be selling my primary form of transportation, my old bicycle, anytime soon.