May 31, 2008

Another Ignored Problem Surfaces - Again

Here’s another ignored transportation problem to chew on

From the Sun-Times

“A big choke point is Chicago, and any solution will have to include this hub, which handles about 40 percent of all U.S. rail freight on 180,000 trains a year.

The problem is that the Chicago hub was designed in the mid-1800s.”


What isn’t mentioned is that most of the rail lines in the US are owned by the federal government who coincidentally is the parent of what we know as Amtrak. Passenger trains share the same tracks with freight trains.

I have many memories of riding the train from that little town in Missouri to Chicago and vice versa. I can remember the teeny bopper excitement of going to the ‘big city’ to see The Who at the Kinetic Playground. As an adult city dweller, I remember one frigid –80 degree (with wind chill) Christmas waiting for a 6PM train that finally departed Chicago around midnight. That year everything came to a standstill. But in milder seasons, there were (and probably still are) delays. The old train was the easiest way to get to the homestead without a car.

There were always threats of killing Amtrak altogether just to get more federal funding. The problem is, government can’t run itself very efficiently, so what makes it an expert on the transportation level?

There’s been a surge in ridership with the rising cost of airfares and gasoline. It takes longer but for years people with limited spending funds have ridden the trains. Had the powers been looking to the future, we wouldn’t have an 1800 circa hub that’s choking.

Amtrak on Wikipedia

National Atlas


The North Coast said...

People who like creature comfort, roomy seats with ample legroom,freedom to use electronic devices without fear of screwing up delicate safety systems, and freedom from the brutality and incivility of airports and air travel in general,have been riding the trains, too.

I took the rails to St. Louis both of the last two Christmases because my experience at Midway in 2005 was so hellish. I figured out that the Amtrack trip actually only took an hour more than the plane trip, once you figured in the commute to and from airports, the time required for check-in and going the the security lines, and the countless flight delays.

My rail trips were rather slow, but they were delightful compared to the horrors of modern air travel. The personnel are courteous, the seats are great, you can get up and move around, you can plug in your computer at your seat and you can yap on your cell at will.

Short hop air travel for trips of less than 500 miles shouldn't even exist. I remain convinced that the only thing we need to do for passenger railroad to once more thrive is to STOP SUBSIDIZING THEIR COMPETITION. Remove the $14 Billion in direct subsidies that the Feds throw at the airlines, and simultaneously remove the strangling regulations that hamper the railroads, and we won't need to subsidize Amtrack, for passenger rail travel will once more be profitable, and all the neglected interurban and interstate rights-of-ways will be reclaimed.

Kheris said...

This is a problem that must be solved. The lack of attention to the national infrastructure, including the electric grid, is going to seriously bite us in the buttocks. Once again it will come down to dollars and the political will to spend them on infrastructure in lieu of something else. We get what we pay for, and we aren't willing to pay for much, or, it seems, insist on accountability for spending our taxes wisely.

The North Coast said...

There are signs that the tide is turning, and massive investment in the rails is being made by the private sector.

It is very encouraging that Warren Buffet has shoveled $700 million into Burlington Northern alone, in addition to smaller investments in other railroads. This guy is not known for making dumb moves with major money, and I suspect that railroads will draw other big investors as it becomes increasingly clear that the airlines are not going to make it- the CEO of American Airlines baldly stated that there is no way that industry can continue as it has on $120 a barrel oil.

We can't count on the government, because it is slow, inefficient, bureaucratic, and subject to politics. It would take incredible political will for our politicians to shift the weight of subsidies from emphasis on autos and airlines to rails, so I don't see it happening anytime soon.

Fargo said...

I'm about to take a trip to Oregon. I'm dreading the flight to Portland, and not due to any flying phobia. Air travel has become a nightmare. I'm really looking forward to the relaxing return trip on Amtrak (sleeper). If I had a little more time to spare, I would have taken the train in both directions.

I've been to Denver, New York, Boston, Kansas City and other closer destinations by train. Those trips have been much more positive experiences than post-9/11 flying.

The sit-down dining car meals on Amtrak are excellent. Conversations and scenery add a lot to the experience. Going direct from downtown to downtown sure beats making long treks to and from airports. Being able to get a really good meal on board wins hands down. Having comfortable seats and being able to walk around puts it way over the top.

For those of you who have never taken Amtrak, I'd suggest giving it a try. Trips to Minneapolis, St. Louis, and other relatively close destinations are a piece of cake compared to the same trip by plane or car. I've done overnight 1-day trips in coach. For longer trips, a sleeper is more expensive, but makes it more comfortable and relaxing. Sleeper fare also includes all meals in the dining car - first class. If you figure in what you wouldn't be spending on hotels and restaurants for the same amount of time, the price evens out.

Improving and expanding Amtrak service (especially adding high speed rail where it's viable) would be a much better investment than expanding airport capacity.