Tuesday, April 15th, 2008 at 6:31 pm in Amtrak, Bicycling, Buses, Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), Carpooling, connectivity, driving, Environment, fuel, global warming, rail, Transit vs. driving.
On my way home last night, I fancied that I was going to blog about the latest bit of transportation research to come out of the Cato Institute, an inside-the-Beltway limited-government think-tank.
I was going to write about the study, Does Rail Transit Save Energy or Reduce Greenhouse Emissions?, as I quaffed a $4.50 micro-brew on the Capitol Corridor. If you know anything about the Cato Institute, you can probably guess what it says:
Far from protecting the environment, most rail transit lines use more energy per passenger mile, and many generate more greenhouse gases, than the average passenger automobile. Rail transit provides no guarantee that a city will save energy or meet greenhouse gas targets.
While most rail transit uses less energy than buses, rail transit does not operate in a vacuum: transit agencies supplement it with extensive feeder bus operations. Those feeder buses tend to have low ridership, so they have high energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile. The result is that, when new rail transit lines open, the transit systems as a whole can end up consuming more energy, per passenger mile, than they did before.
This will be some comfort to regular readers of this blog, at least those who believe that rail transit, commuter rail in particular, is on par, if you will, with whites-only country clubs of pre-1970s suburbia.
I was all set to set up my laptop on a little fold-down table and spend my first hour on the train writing what I thought of this study and its results. Then I was going to pedal home from the train station and post that essay and wait for you to respond.
But that’s not what happened.
On the way to writing that post, I lost all objectivity about rail commuting, and the Capitol Corridor in particular.
I’m not a prompt person, as my editor and the IRS already know, but yesterday I was determined to give myself a little breathing room in achieving my multi-modal commute. I made it past the security guard before 6:30 p.m., which means I didn’t have to sign out, even though I had taken time to check www.amtrak.com to learn that train #544 was projected to arrive at 6:46 — two minutes late.
Although I took a bit longer to get dolled up in my helmet, jacket and ski gloves against the chill evening air, I still had a good 10 minutes to ride to the station, a trip that normally takes about seven.
But long before I pedaled off on my 1.7- mile hop to the station, before I checked the railroad’s website, someone at the Capitol Corridor’s customer information office received an advisory from Amtrak. That was at 6:16 p.m., I learned 90 minutes later.
All I could see, however, were two very discouraging messages. The first one, which was flashing on the message board above the platform as soon as I arrived at 6:42, was that train congestion was delaying trains between Richmond and Martinez. Another message said it was because of a trespasser incident, in other words, someone killed by a train.
I called one of my colleagues to find out if they knew about the incident, and was told that it had happened several hours earlier and was an apparent suicide. After trying to add up all the people who had been killed by trains recently in the Bay Area, I determined that I need to write about this. I also determined that the trains might actually be moving again.
The other message appeared about 10 minutes after I arrived at the Oakland Coliseum station. It said that a disabled train was causing delays for my train between Great America and Fremont. As far as my prospects of getting home on the train were concerned, this was more troubling.
I called the Capitol Corridor’s new automated information line. It told that my train had already departed Coliseum. Thanks, guys.
At this point, I noticed that the only other passenger waiting for the train at Coliseum had also called, but had waited to speak to an actual person. We began chatting and I asked if he had learned anything. A freight train had gotten stuck, somehow across both sets of tracks, and everything was blocked.
Normally, such news would have prompted me to switch to Plan B, which is to jump on BART, take it to Lake Merritt and pedal to the safety and climate-control of Jack London Square. If it appears the train will be delayed for hours, there’s also Plan C, which is to pedal back to work and take my car home.
Plan C is particularly annoying. I’m certainly not suffering like my fellow commuters who don’t have a car handy, but I’m paying another $20 for gas and toll and my monthly train pass (which works out to nearly $20 a workday) at the same time. If I’m lucky, the Corridor will offer a discount some later month to atone for the inconvenience, and maybe free wine and cheese on the train.
But now I had come to find out that my fellow traveler, an accountant named Steve who lives in Sacramento, was completely at the mercy of the train. Not only that, but he’d not expected the chilly evening, and was shivering as we kvetched about our love-hate relationship with the railroad.
An hour past time for the train to arrive, and I found myself calling an actual person at the Capitol Corridor’s info line. She told me again about the stalled freight train. I asked if she had any indication when it would be cleared up, and she revealed that her last “update” had come at 6:16 p.m. The time was 7:44 p.m.
So I finally jumped on my bike, started pedaling and Steve hollers at me, “The train’s coming!” I curved back around, rode up onto the platform, and sure enough, there was a bright, single light shining in the dusk, about a half-mile down the tracks.
But then it went dark. We puzzled over this for another 10 minutes, and I tucked in my pant leg again and set off back to work.
A simple plan. I was going to pedal the 1.7 miles back to the parking lot, lock up my bike on the bike rack, and drive back to the station and pick up Steve, whose wife would come pick him up from my quiet Central Valley enclave.
My plans always seem simple on paper. After I locked the bike, I decided I need to make a pit stop in the office building, so I parked the car out front. As I was getting out, seeming gale-force winds pulled the door out of my hand and whipped it into the car next to mine.
The car was dented and I was mortified. I went inside, visited the bathroom, and got a Post-it from the guard to write my name and number down for the driver of the — get this — navy blue Infiniti connected to the door I had just dented.
By the time I got back to the station, Steve still hadn’t got any new information on the train. It was about 8:25 at this point. When he got into the car, he was in one of those stick-your-fingers-in-the-heating-vents conditions. I blasted the heat, directed all the vents in his direction and we were nearly in Crockett before he was ready to let me adjust the heat to something normal.
When I got home, I went online and found that the train had come 2 hours and 17 minutes late. We were ahead of it by an hour an hopefully, Steve still has feeling in all of his fingers and toes.
So I never got to sit on the train and write about the Cato study. Now I can’t, not without injecting my perspective with an unhealthy dose of bias or even malice (there, I said it).
Speaking of numbness, it appears that if I leave now, I might get the station without having to break a sweat…