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transportation at the crossing gate

By enelson
Wednesday, June 4th, 2008 at 8:53 pm in Altamont Commuter Express, Amtrak, BART, Caltrain, Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), high-speed rail, Planning, rail, Transit vs. driving.

neglected rails

For those of you patient enough to wonder what’s become of me, I was on vacation last week, digging up my yard and rearranging my house to meet my wife’s exacting domestic standards. As for this week, I blame the elections and their abject lack of transportation issues, unless you count Props 98 and 99 and the importance of eminent domain land takings in the construction of new infrastracture projects.

There isn’t, however, much call for taking land for infrastructure projects. In spite of the $20 billion transportation bond measure (Prop 1B) passed in 2006, this state and nation continue to suffer from a lack of enough freeway lanes, airport runways and other things that could help us get around.

I spotted an interesting AP story today talking about one of the most neglected forms of transportation infrastructure, even though we seem to want it more than ever as we anticipate $7-a-gallon gas:

While the nation’s attention is focused on air travel congestion and the high cost of fuel for highway driving, a crisis is developing under the radar for another form of transportation — the freight trains used to deliver many of the goods that keep the U.S. economy humming.

The nation’s 140,000-mile network of rails devoted to carrying everything from cars to grain by freight is already groaning under the strain of congestion, with trains forced to stand aside for hours because of one-track rail lines.

It was no accident that I found this, because was already working on a story about how one and reportedly two of America’s big railroads have indicated that they aren’t about to give up any of their rights-of-way under such circumstances.

Union Pacific has said in no uncertain terms that it won’t give up its land for California’s high-speed rail enterprise, and anyone reading the AP story can see why that might be. It’s been suggested that the railroad might just be playing hardball in anticipation of future real estate negotiations, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case.

But it’s also true that we need to move a lot of freight, and now it seems we need to move more people along the rails as well.

Coincidentally, I took the Capitol Corridor with my wife on Sunday, and she told me what a nice ride it was couldn’t see why I complain so much about my long commute. (Hint: I’m driving home tonight so I can spend an extra 40 minutes at home with my beloved).

But that same comfy train can sit idle for long stretches while waiting for the 20 or so freight trains that run along the same tracks every day. Both freight and passenger traffic are growing, and yet there aren’t enough tracks to accommodate that growth.

This is not about high-speed rail. This is about rail of all kinds. Despite what some of you good folks believe about buses, they can’t move people the way a railway can. Or if they can, they’re just a railway without rails, on a dedicated right-of-way much like the San Fernando Valley’s Orange Line.

We really haven’t done much with our rail network since Dewey “defeated” Truman, and it would seem that if we’re going to move millions of commuters without the aid of gasoline, we’re going to need to anticipate the future a little more effectively and lay some new track.

Sure, it’s expensive, just like rebuilding all the infrastructure we’ve let rot over the last few decades. We seem to have a consensus about how to raise money for transportation, the question is, how do we spend that money?

In November, voters may or may not approve a big fat $10 billion loan for a few hundred miles of high-speed rail. By 2020, we may or may not have service between LA and San Francisco. Regardless, it seems that during that waiting period we’ll also need to lay some more pedestrian, 1860s-style track that can carry lots of people from lots of point As to lots of point Bs.

BART, Caltrain, the Capitol Corridor, ACE and the San Joaquins are all hauling lots of people with little room to expand. For every one of them, there’s a corridor that needs another set of tracks, be it SMART, e-BART or the I-680 corridor. One day, I predict that all of them will be well-tracked.

The question is, will any of us be around to see that day?

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8 Responses to “transportation at the crossing gate”

  1. david vartanoff Says:

    Actually we HAVE done a great deal with our rail system since Truman–mostly destructive. Thousands of route miles and multiple main tracks have been destroyed. Imagine gutting the Interstates back to two lane blacktops and completely removing a third of the routes.

  2. Robert Raburn Says:

    The dilemma is going to be over who will operate the future rail network. A benevolent UPRR is unlikely. We don’t want to ressurect the “Octopus.” The early adoption of trucks for farm-to-market hauling was in protest of gouging by railroad companies.

  3. Aaron Priven Says:

    It’s not that trains necessarily move more people than buses; it’s that they do so more cost-effectively when the number of people is high enough. We need to get beyond mode chauvinism (advocating one mode of transit over another) and instead advocate cost-effective transit whatever the mode is.

  4. Reedman Says:

    There would be more confidence in rail transport of both
    people and freight, of both low and high speed, if rail could do some of the simple things well. But it doesn’t seem to. I noticed that Amtrak service from New Orleans to Jacksonville is still not restored (after being hit by Katrina in 2005, and this is 2008 …).

  5. david vartanoff Says:

    US RRs by and large are so mismanaged that they are only able to garner non time dependent business. Kinda like SF Muni, if you have an appointment, good luck! As to the eastern leg of the Sunset Ltd, Atk mgmt doesn’t care, CSX is as usual uncooperative, and given UP’ stellar OTP w/ the existing route the train will only ever be on time westbound.

  6. david vartanoff Says:

    Mode chauvinism has roots in history. Rails in the street are a little harder to arbitrarily abandon than rubber tire routes. Conversely, bus systems’ insistence on competing rather than cooperating w/rail systems is rider hostile as well as wasteful. Cities like Chicago unified the surface and elevated transit in the ’40s so that a single fare got you from door to door whether bus, streetcar, elevated, trolley bus or any combination. Most of us don’t care what color paint the transit vehicle wears, we just want to move.

  7. Hayden Says:

    As you point out, it’s not only a matter of space for rail lines, but also the poor condition in which the rail companies have maintained their existing lines. Or, from another point of view, the extent to which we’ve allowed the rail companies to let their tracks go. This includes lack of maintenance that led to the deaths of rail passengers–CSX’s approach under former Treasury Secretary John Snow’s management, as discussed by David Cay Johnston in his most recent book. From a safety perspective, this makes me wonder how safe passenger rail in the US really is at the moment.

  8. Reedman Says:

    The HSR Board is having a meeting on Wednesday, June 11, in LA. Are you going to attend? Will you take the train to get there?

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