Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Alternative transportation

While at IYM-C I picked up a brochure from Quaker Earthcare Witness titled "Traveling Gently on the Earth: What Would John Woolman Drive?"

As Woolman traveled around the US preaching against slavery he often went by foot refusing to use horse-drawn coaches, saying "So great is the hurry in the spirit of this world that in aiming to do business quickly, and to gain wealth, the creation at this day doth loudly groan." And that was in the 18th century!

In the 21st century:
  • Thousands of tons of car-related chemicals are washed into waterways and aquifers annually
  • 63 million tires were dumped in 1996, adding to 800 million tires already in dumps. Tires are breeding grounds for mosquitoes and are a fire hazard.
  • Vehicles kill thousands of pedestrians and over a million animals every year.
  • The US consumes 26% of the worlds petroleum; 43% of this energy is used for cars and trucks
  • Motor vehicles account for 33% of carbon dioxide emissions, a major contributor to global warming
  • In urban areas, road surfaces cover about 1/5 of available land.
Of course the list goes on. (Thanks Quaker Earthcare Witness!)

As friend Jedidiah commented the other day, perhaps we do still need cars. But there are a lot of things we can do to cut down on our usage of them.
I do have to say, about the Priuses, that just getting a Prius and driving it around as much as you would a 'normal' car isn't the answer. Some Friends spoke to this at IYM-C and Friend Carl had a whole lot to say about it a few months ago.

But, what happens if you have to travel greater distances? Air travel has become ubiquitous but it costs more than just the ticket price. There is a lot of fuel involved in this option as well.

I'd like to take a stand here for train travel. I rode Amtrak up and down the Puget Sound from Seattle to Portland and Salem for years. It was usually an enjoyable way to spend 4 or 5 (or 6+) hours: watching a movie, meeting new people, catching a nap, enjoying the scenery, not stressing out about the traffic, reading books, doing homework. I even worked on a quilt one time!

However, the state of train travel in this country sucks. A recent article in Good Magazine, Train in Vain, spells out some details. A few juicy details:
  • Rail service is impractical because most of the time, it’s cheaper and faster to drive or fly.
  • Rail service is unreliable because more often than not, the trains are really, really late.
  • In Europe, reliable high-speed routes are now being connected across the continent: the French TGV regularly hits 200 mph; the Eurostar zooms the 300 miles from Paris to London in just 2 hours and 15 minutes; in Japan, the Shinkansen has been zipping along at 130 mph since 1964—1964!—and the island nation’s most popular long-distance intercity route serves 385,000 passengers daily.
  • America’s trophy system, the high-speed Acela..., peaks at 150 mph for two short lengths of track, which total a meager 18 miles.
  • Despite having the largest rail network of any country in the world... in terms of passenger miles, the United States ranks below not only France and Japan, but also below under-developed countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia.
  • George Chilson, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (and a lot of other people) sees the railroads as a priority for America, as a solution to congestion and rising gas prices.
  • Per passenger mile, an Amtrak train uses about half the energy of an airplane, and can carry twice the number of people. It’s also the passenger-carrying equivalent of 16 lanes of highway.
  • Though Amtrak is entirely owned by the U.S. government, funded at the government’s discretion, and has its leadership appointed by the president and subject to Senate approval, it still has a mandate to achieve profitability and financial independence.
  • Those of you thinking about which candidate to vote for, McCain has been a vocal critic of the rail system.
  • And sadly, Amtrak, too poor to own nearly any of the rails that it runs on, operates on borrowed infrastructure, using tracks owned by private freight companies who are legally bound to let Amtrak roll on their rails, but little else. Meaning that when a freight train needs to get by, Amtrak waits.
For shorter distance rides, it's hard to beat Amtrak. But long-distance is another story. A round-trip ticket from Portland, OR to Minneapolis is about $245. This beats airfare for sure. But, your train leaves at 4 in the evening and doesn't arrive till two days later, early in the morning. That means two nights sleeping in those train seats. If you want a tiny roomette so you can lie down and sleep more comfortably for those nights, that will set you back $200 - $500. So your total may climb closer to $1500!!

I support Amtrak, and I am looking for ways to support massive improvements to the system. I hope someday we will have an excellent and speedy train system, more options for when to travel (trains only leave Minneapolis once a day), and I would hope the price wouldn't be so outrageous. The price of transportation should reflect the true cost of resources and in that sense, air travel should be more expensive than train travel!

If you want to help now, here is information from NARP on the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act.


Omar Poppenlander said...

I liked this post; I've always felt that rail travel in this country was an underdeveloped option. I assume that some of this is related to the sheer immensity of the US. The distances here are much vaster than those in Europe or Japan, to quote two of your examples.

But why do you suppose the cost for rail travel is higher than airfare? Is it just the time differential? Do you pay more because you are taking up "space" longer on the train than on the plane?

@bdul muHib said...

Good article. Did you hear how Obama's proposing a $6000 rebate to anyone who buys a hybrid! Not getting enough press, but this is a shocking proposal. In that it could finally bring hybrids in reach of the general populace (and through their purchaes, drive up demand, thereby reducing the price further), it could radically alter the kind of cars we drive.

As you know, I've long lamented the state of train travel here in the US. I'm told it's much better on the East Coast, because Amtrak owns the rails there, and can therefore go faster. If it takes two days to get to your destination instead of 6 hours, you lose the money you'd make in at least a day of work. But besides all of that, the customer service is so contrary to the words that it's the equivalent of military intelligence. They are decidedly the meanest and rudest managers of travel I have experienced at any time, in any country.

I think Amtrak costs more due to inefficiency- rampid inefficiency. It's not just how high the prices are; consider they are also very heavily subsidized by the government. Imo, they should remove subsidization completely, and allow for competition again on the rails, and let the market take hold. Prices would rapidly fall, in comparison to plane travel. Indeed, I think the very subsidization means they can afford to charge higher rates; Amtrak will be paid no matter how many people get on board.

@bdul muHib said...

Just saw on the news; CA legislature is going to put it to a vote this November- America's first high-speed rail system, allowing you to travel by train from LA to SF in 2 1/2 hours, at 200 mph. Of course, by the time they get it done, we'll probably be so old that it will be unsafe for us to travel at those speeds.

Aimee said...

omar - I think the underdevelopment is definitely due to the size of the US. I believe the Good article says a bit more about that.
I have no idea why the train travel is more expensive. Actually, just having a seat isn't that expensive - it gets outrageous if you want a little room to sleep in. Perhaps the cost is because there are so few. It's not like the price includes food, you have to pay for that too!

abdul - my understanding of amtrak is that they are subsidized very little (air travel and highways are subsidized much more) but they are subject to government whims. When amtrak was formed, the gov didn't expect it to last long.
I think making it private and getting more companies in would be great - but I also wonder who has the money and resources to build trains and train tracks across the US. I guess if different companies arose to cover certain areas that would be best.
I hope Obama is a train supporter!

@bdul muHib said...


I had understood Amtrak to be heavily subsidized, and wholly owned by its employees. The latter is often touted in commercials, and I think goes a long way towards explaining their extreme Tude- there is no employee accountability for maintaining good customer service.

Aimee said...

Hmm, well that's what the Good article said and I assume they did their research - but perhaps not...

SiouxGeonz said...

Consider how extremely subsidized automobile travel is (how many roads and parking lots?)before you subject rail travel to market forces.
I personally think it's time we took the brave step of embracing the idea that we should make it so we *don't* "need" to travel as much, as far, and as quickly. People's "needs" justify many the wrong.

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