Bring back the trains, fast

Winglock, gridlock. Shrinking mobility, rising pollution. With airport congestion provoking travelers, gas prices agitating drivers, and six-hour rush hours in some cities, alternatives to auto-air dominance have gained appeal. And, as Amtrak struggles to push its high-speed rail initiative through Congress, the question should not be "Can we build an iron Interstate?" or "Can we get the nation back on track?" but "How can we do so quickly?"

For many, the immobility and environmental malaise of US transportation have begun to create a new constituency for just such a civilizing rail network. Into the void between today's clogged, toxic travel and sustainable transportation, comes a new bill: the High-Speed Rail Investment Act of 2001, introduced in the House June 27, now with 129 cosponsors. Designed to add trains, speed up trains, and lay track, its demands - $12 billion in bonds over 10 years - seem trifling compared with sums for this year alone for roads ($31 billion) and airports ($17 billion).

In this era of environmental and energy concerns, rail is growing across the country. Funded mostly by state and local support, light rail has been a success story in improbable places. Freight rail, too, has advanced, cutting down on trucks clunking through neighborhoods and choking highways. But despite Amtrak's increased ridership, passenger trains have had tougher going.

This year, on Amtrak's 30th birthday, it is time for passenger rail to get away from choochoo status in congressional quarters. People, politicians, and rail professionals know it. For all the inequities in funding, train managers at the recent American Public Transportation Association conference in Boston reported progress and recharged commitment to corridors of high- (or higher-) speed rail corridors in the face of clogged runways and runaway auto congestion.

The three high-speed initiatives (Boston-Washington, the Midwest, and West Coast) are all advancing. Amtrak's Acela trips grow, serving the Boston-New York nexus and extending to Washington, plus the increasingly active Southern states. The Midwest initiative, centered in Chicago, has begun to be fulfilled.

In the West, the Eugene, Ore.,-Washington State-Vancouver, British Columbia, line is expanding, while California has grand plans to further its San Diego-Los Angeles-Sacramento corridor, despite the state's depleted coffers.

The market is promising. Since 30 percent of all airport hub flights go just 500 miles, such high-speed trains could get traffic out of the air and off the roads.

Given meager federal aid - the $12 billion in bonds being sought, plus a scant $521 million grant from capital funds - passenger trains could begin to become on-time alternatives with more cars, more tracks, and improved signaling.

Not only in quality of movement, but in quality of the environment, such improved rail could beat the skies and surface roads. As concerns about energy and global warming grow, trains could serve to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions - 33 percent of which come from motor vehicles. Likewise, increased rail use could shrink the mounting airplane emissions in the upper atmosphere, predicted by the Worldwatch Institute to become ever more deadly.

Less positively, Amtrak's number could be up in fiscal year 2003, when it is mandated to be operationally self-sufficient. Rail, unlike any other infrastructure, public service, or transportation project in the world's industrial nations, is required to practice "capitalism." That financial demand does not apply to the airplane and highway agencies practicing public- service "socialism," overfeeding at the federal trough.

The history behind rail's lagging lies in highway handouts, vast multiples going to roads instead of rails. While European lines went from postwar devastation to rapid on-time fleets via national support (plus gas-tax penalties to the car), the US headed toward auto-air dependency, subsidizing road-building and oil-buying, and depriving the train.

Broke and broken-down, the nation's passenger rail service caved.

When Amtrak took $2 billion from the feds four years ago, it was forced to agree to "work more like a commercial business," as Amtrak president George Warrington recently put it. It would behave like no other transportation mode, from roads to streetcars to buses. It would behave as no industrial nation's rail has behaved.

Now, however, America and Amtrak are on the verge of change. The time has come to treat rail like its auto-air counterparts. The politics around the new bill's requests are promising but not assured. Will Congress go for the bonds? Will states and communities contribute more? Questions remain. What is clear is that this could - and should - be the moment for a new era of rail mobility.

Jane Holtz Kay, an architecture and planning critic, is author of 'Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back' (University of California, 1998).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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