Monday, August 11, 2008

Public Transportation and Energy Policy

August 11, 2008, 7:30 a.m.

[Note: The "Sexual Assault Update," July 19-August 8, 2008, blog entry remains at its former location; however, any updates to it following August 8, 2008, will be found, along with the blog entry as of August 8, at a new Web site, Nicholas Johnson, "University of Iowa Sexual Assault Controversy -- 2007-08."]

Public Transportation

Having once been a part of a legal team representing American Airlines, and subsequently a United Airlines groupie (lifetime Red Carpet Club membership, credit card, "Mileage Plus"), it is with sadness that I have finally had to acknowledge that our airline industry is disfunctional as a transportation system.

The rising costs for fewer flights, including the nickle-and-diming us for everything from pillows to peanuts, the delays, the even more crowed seats, the lost luggage, the lines and necessity to dress twice the morning of a flight to satisfy the terrorist-prevention folks -- the list goes on.

Add to this the flights' impact on greenhouse gasses, global warming and the ozone hole, and it's just not the transportation system it used to seem to be -- not to mention the fun.

So, looking for another long distance transportation system I decided to try the train on a recent round trip to Denver. I rode a lot of passenger trains in my youth, and used the train from Washington to New York and back when in Washington, but hadn't thought seriously about it as a cross-country alternative until recently.

It was enjoyable. The fares are cheap compared to the airlines. The staff is delightfully friendly. The ride is relatively smooth. The seats are exceedingly spacious -- compared to the airlines the trains' coach seats are better than the airlines' first class. The views are often spectacular. There are none of the lines and the security checkpoints. You just walk from the depot to the train and board. You can get access to your luggage during the trip. Most folks seem to have no problem sleeping in the coach seats, but if you want a bed, in a "roomette" or a "room," they are available for an extra fare.

The downside? Because recent administrations have been more interested in killing off passenger rail entirely than supporting it, the freight trains now own the tracks and get to call the shots -- making passenger trains wait on side tracks while the freight trains pass -- often resulting in cross-country late arrivals of four hours or more. While basic fares are relatively cheap, if you do want a bed you will pay five star hotel rates for a bunk more reminiscent of what you had at summer camp when a kid.

For long distances, even an on-time train will take longer than an on-time plane. Of course, you can't count on on-time planes any more, even if you are willing to put up with the frustrations and indignities of flying. But beyond that reality, there's something stress-reducing about the rethinking of "time" and "life" the rails induce. And it need not be thought of as "lost" or "wasted" time. You can work on the train -- read, write on your laptop (or yellow pad), make cell phone calls -- if you insist, and are the kind of person who gets jittery when forced to relax. But real relaxation is also possible.

As with the near-universal adoption of the rational approach to health care delivery by industrialized countries ("universal, single-payer health care"), the rest of the world has also been much more rational and progressive than we have with regard to public transportation. Some 40 years ago I was riding the 300-km/hour "bullet train" (Shinkansen) in Japan -- as well as the light rail/subway in Tokyo, and the more conventional, ubiquitous rail system to reach the more rural areas.

When serving on our local school board, and writing a column every two weeks about K-12 issues, I drew analogies between the Swiss railroads and their educational system. "The Swiss . . . trains are unbelievably smooth and quiet. You can set your Swiss watch by those trains. They’re non-polluting electric, clean, fast and everywhere. Imagine 10,000 miles of rails in eastern Iowa. With departures every 20 minutes." Nicholas Johnson, "Swiss Education Runs On Time," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 5, 2001, p. 9A.

Think about that. If we had the equivalent of the Swiss rail system in eastern Iowa it would involve 10,000 miles of track, with passenger train connections every 20 minutes.

Senator John McCain can ridicule the suggestion we check the air pressure in our cars' tires if he wants, but the fact is that we need to do anything and everything we can to cut back on the amount of gasoline we go to war for in order to operate our excessively costly and inefficient transportation system that requires everyone to be the engineer of his or her own personal train (automobiles with one or two passengers).

It's not just the cost of gasoline, registration and license fees, insurance, repairs, maintenance, and the enormous depreciating capital costs. It's the multi-billion-dollar cost of highway construction and repair, parking garages and lots, filing stations and the infrastructure to keep them supplied -- not to mention the value of the time lost driving and dealing with slow moving traffic during commutes.

(We've recently increased the mileage on my wife's car from 28 to near 40 miles per gallon with the simple suggestions of driving a slower, steady speed and increasing the air pressure in the tires.)

By choosing to get around locally with a bicycle and occasionally walking I thought I'd cut down the mileage on my own vehicle to about 500 miles a year. When I ran the actual numbers it turned out I had only driven 400 miles in two years. A number of universities are undertaking programs designed to get their students out of their cars and onto bicycles.
Associated Press/Atlanta, "Colleges peddle bikes to car-loving students," NPR, August 10, 2008, 2:16 p.m. ET; reprinted as "Colleges Peddle Bike Lifestyle on Campuses," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 11, 2008, p. 6A.

The Press-Citizen addresses this morning the need to promote, rather than curtail, the availability of public (primarily bus) transportation at this time -- yet another sub-set of the public transportation story. Editorial, "Time to Expand, Not Cut, Public Transportation," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 11, 2008, p. A11; and see, Editorial, "A Mass Transit Mess; The Bush administration shouldn't borrow money from public transportation to pay for highways," Washington Post, August 5, 2008, p. A18; reprinted as "Views from Other Newspapers: A Mass Transit Mess," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 11, 2008, p. A11.

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John Barleykorn said...

Amtrak is experiencing rapid growth, especially in shorter direct city to city routes. Some states have started partnering with Amtrak on routes. This is the case with the coming route from Chicago to Iowa City and beyond to Des Moines. I predict this will be very popular route, with full trains almost all the time. A business traveler from Des Moines could leave at 7:30 AM, arrive in downtown Chicago at Union Station at 12:30 to 1 PM, have an afternoon meeting, depart again at 5:30 and get home at 11 PM. The time on the train could be used for work time or relaxing as Nick says. It sounds like a winner to me. I won't fly now unless it is a great distance. It is just an unpleasant experience.

John Neff said...

I would be interested in a report on a trip via Amtrak to DC.

Our experience is that short trips via Amtrak are more likely to be pleasant than a longer trips. You should assume that Amtrak will not be on time with delays of about eight hours for long trips not uncommon.

If you know in advance that delays of several hours are possible you can compensate but when they get as large as eight hours your plans can get badly messed up. We took Amtrak to Sacramento and back and the scenery and the Amtrak staff were wonderful but we will never do that again because of the delays and equipment failures.

We took a high speed train from Paris to Rennes several years ago and it was a wonderful experience. Every seat was taken and the ride was as smooth as silk.