Monday, April 2, 2012

Clackety-Clack, Please Come Back!

By Alex Pearlstein, Director of Projects.

A couple of years ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece on the anticipated proliferation of rail cargo as the volume of overland goods shipments skyrockets and our nation’s roads and highways grow ever more congested. It was a convincing article and got me excited again about something I’ve long wondered: why is America’s passenger rail capacity so pathetic? I emailed the reporter about whether he had asked any of the rail executives he spoke to about the potential for passenger travel. He said he asked, but was told that it wasn’t an option due to a lack of trackage capacity, the need to prioritize cargo shipments, and Amtrak’s passenger monopoly.

As someone who travels predominantly by air, I would give my left pinky for a more pleasant option for short-haul trips. Case in point – if I didn’t want to drive from Des Moines to Kansas City (2.5 hours away), I would either have to take Greyhound or else spend about six to eight hours flying a one-stop itinerary through Minneapolis, Dallas, Memphis, or Atlanta. I would pay a premium for a one-hour train trip – heck, even a three-hour train trip! But the odds of being able to connect from Des Moines anywhere in the Midwest via rail are dim; Des Moines doesn’t have an Amtrak station and any hopes of piggybacking on a high-speed rail (HSR) line from Chicago to Omaha, Nebraska were quashed by our governor. I frankly don’t think any HSR will ever get built in the U.S. We don’t even have enough revenue to fix our roads and highways, let alone federalize a massive investment in passenger rail.

So the feds paying for new passenger rail is a no-go; how about privatizing it and forcing Amtrak to grow or go? A couple of recent articles provide a shred of hope for all of us who would like to see rail become a viable travel option again. A piece in Forbes called “U.S. Poised for Passenger Rail Boom” got me certifiably giddy. According to the article, “Of planes, trains, and automobiles, only one can accommodate America’s growing need for urban and intercity transportation.” That’s right, kids – good old railroads! Forbes quoted a Washington, DC-based chairman of French transportation company saying, “If you look at the current dominant modes of transportation—highways and aviation—they are capacity constrained, capital starved, and there is not much in the way of optimism about either of them… Your capacity seems to be pretty much unlimited for rail.” Agreed, monsieur. According to the article, the coming boom in passenger rail is so palpable that traditional rail companies that long ago abandoned passenger service are demanding a return to the business. To quote a movie about cheerleading, “Bring it on!”

A second Forbes article fanned the flames even higher, noting that “America’s leading freight railroads are plotting their return to passenger service as Amtrak faces a threat from privatizing politicians in Congress.”

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could kill two birds with one stone – provide frustrated fliers a timely and cost-competitive antidote to the hell that is air travel while also creating economic development opportunities for traditional rail towns all across this country. They’ve still got a lot of their old rail infrastructure, either still partly in use or dormant and poised for reinvestment. To see the former rail hubs and nodes that emerged over a hundred years ago during our nation’s expansion return to at least some of their past glory would be one of the great comeback stories of our time.

While the “little engine of passenger rail that could” faces a long and steep ascent up the hill of entrenched interests and transportation monopolies, it’s still a pleasant notion to consider as you imagine the clackety-clack of the rails on your dream jaunt from Des Moines to Kansas City.