Can't You Hear the Whistle Blowing?

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On a Thursday in March 1776, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson whizzed through the English countryside in a post chaise at 10 m.p.h. Dr. Johnson said contentedly, "Life has not many things better than this." Transportation has been deteriorating ever since.

That can't be measured exactly. Travel is, in some crucial way, a subjective emotional experience. The delighted Dr. Johnson's carriage jounced along down urban corridors of dust or mud. But the rig was, for its time, a Rolls-Royce. Travel is literally a state of mind. When trains got started in the early 19th century, people thought that moving 20 m.p.h. might cause insanity. On the other hand, it is not speed but an enraging motionlessness — the stalled freeway, or the runway where you sit for an hour or two awaiting takeoff — that causes derangement today. We are spoiled. It has been a while since we sat back in a plane or a car and told ourselves, "Life has not many things better than this."


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The objective profit and loss have suffered too. Airlines explore the temptations of Chapter 11. Amtrak staggers ahead, feckless and insolvent, through train wrecks and slowdowns. It is time to make very large changes — to rearrange the mix of the three basic modes of mass transportation: air, rail and highway.

The answer to the nation's transportation problems clearly lies neither in an expansion of aviation nor in putting more cars on additional highways. My choice would be the oldest mode of the three: rail. It is not a sentimental or nostalgic choice. The aviation industry, like the vast infrastructure for cars, is dangerously overbuilt. In recent years aviation has sucked regional boosters into ill-conceived drives for more airports and more flights, even short ones — all at immense expense.

Airplanes are indispensable for long trips over oceans, over a continent or half a continent. But air travel makes no sense over short distances. In any case, the evolution of cell phones and e-mail and the Internet and videoconferencing means that people need to travel less on business, not more. When ideas and images fly so magically, then our clumsy, inconvenient bodies need not do so — or not so much.

Would it be possible for the U.S., with its great distances, to divide and organize itself for rail? To reinvent its railroads in order to make them fast, efficient and attractive in regional systems, aiming for a European scale and speed and coherence in each region? (For example: Sacramento-San Francisco-Los Angeles-San Diego; Chicago-Milwaukee-Detroit-Cincinnati-Cleveland-Minneapolis; Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington; and so on). Yes.

Critics of expanding the American rail system make three key arguments: 1) Amtrak is hopeless; 2) building a viable rail system — upgrading old roadbeds and laying new track, clearing new right of way, buying new equipment — could cost as much as $100 billion; and 3) it would be irresponsible for government to pour so much money into a service that the market has shown it will not support. People don't ride the trains as it is, the critics say; that's why the railroads are dying.

It is true that Amtrak has been badly run, but let new regional rail systems be set up on their own and forget Amtrak. Comparisons have been loaded to denigrate trains in favor of cars and air travel. It is true the rehabilitation of the nation's railroads would cost billions. But the arithmetic on costs and energy efficiency argues, in the long term, in favor of boldly creative, high-speed regional rail systems that would take the environmental and traffic pressures off highways and airports.

Trains are two to eight times as fuel efficient as planes. As things stand, passenger trains receive only 4% as much in federal subsidies as the $13 billion given annually to the airline industry. Highways receive $33 billion in federal funds. Both airlines and highways have dedicated sources of federal funding: gasoline and ticket taxes. Rail systems should receive equivalent sources of income.

A halfhearted, partly realized plan will only validate the criticisms and doom the new railroads. What is needed is leadership of the kind that Charles de Gaulle demonstrated in backing France's immensely successful high-speed rail, and vision on the scale of President Eisenhower's push for the interstate highway system. The 21st century paradox is that it is not railroads that are old-fashioned and retrograde but rather those essentially inefficient flying machines.