Feature: Rails of Freedom
This post was originally published on Itsgettinghotinhere.org on May 14, 2010. Its message of urgency regarding rebuilding America’s rail transportation seems even more relevant today given the worsening environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. What is the price of not acting to reduce America’s dependence on oil?
I am obsessed with trains. There, I’ve said it. I would even go so far as to argue that I love trains more than Joe Biden does. When I was young, my father used to take me to the train station to watch trains. This is while I was growing up in Baroda, India. While I cannot recall the specific memories of those visits, I do know that at one point in time I would be able to rattle off all the parts of a train, including the different types of engines, rolling stock, their purposes, and the roles of the different employees involved in the industry. I would even spend countless hours drawing scenes of vibrant train stations and would eventually go through several different model train sets until about the age of 13. There is a magic to a journey aboard trains that is unsurpassed by any other form of transit. It inspires. And a study of its history reveals the powerful impact the technology has had on the growth of nations around the world. On April 16, 1853, the departure of the first passenger train from Mumbai (previously Bombay) to Thane traveling just 34 kilometers signaled the arrival of industrial revolution in India. Today, India boasts the second largest passenger rail network in the world and the Indian Railways is the largest employer with approximately 1.6 million employees.
When my family left India, I did not realize that I would be leaving behind a country with a rich legacy of railways to come to a country which has all but forgotten its own similar legacy, which served as the very foundations on which it was built. In 1869 the last spike in the transcontinental railroad, the first link between the east and west coasts of the United States, was driven into the ground. With it, a Morse code message was sent across the United States simply stating, “done.” Railways allowed the United States to become truly unified, they allowed for the expansion of cities, for the distribution of resources and information. Without railways, this country would not have been the same. Railway transportation of both freight and passengers was a very lucrative business. Furthermore, America led the world in railway technology innovation through the creation of “streamliners” noted for their speed and comfort. In 1956 President Eisenhower’s signing the Highways Defense Act signaled the slow and steady decline of a once powerful industry. It was also the beginning of a long and painful journey America would undertake to becoming addicted to oil fostered by the growth of a car culture and the rise of a suburban way of life. Rail, a fixed form of transit, ties communities together. Once upon a time, vibrant downtowns were anchored with a central station, surrounded by shops, business, and not far from residences. With the decline of rail, America has witnessed a decline in community. What’s more, our concern for individuality supported by the car culture has jeopardized the safety of the nation through our addiction to fuel sourced from foreign lands. We are prisoners to this curse.
Sixty years of crumbling rail networks, decommissioning of large tracts of track, pumping billions into highways which serve as a positive feedback for our oil addiction, and lack of investment in rail technology have set us back. The recent announcement by the Obama administration of $8 billion for “high-speed” rail projects across the country may be step in the right direction, but it is not close to what we need. Proposals are on the table to build a national high speed rail network starting with the mega transit corridors that see the highest amount of road traffic. Keeping in mind that by 2025, 27 of the 56 largest US airports will exceed capacity, rail has a big potential to recapture this market as well. Initiating a high speed rail project for five major corridors (California, Northeast, Texas, Florida, and Midwest) would cost approximately $140 billion and would benefit 142.3 million riders annually. Yes, the financial investment is a big figure, but keep in mind that the federal highway system cost $459 billion (2009 dollar equivalent) by the time it was complete! For repairs and expansion, on an annual basis between 1982 and 2004, the federal government has spent several billion more on highways and on the airline industry than on rail. And with the recent funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that have gone towards highway infrastructure improvement having not created any net jobs, its becoming increasingly clear that investing in railways and public transit will. While Chinese immigrants may have helped build the Transcontinental Railroad, China’s recent stunning success with high speed rail has made it a viable candidate to bid for financing and building California’s high speed rail corridor! While this is not an ideal situation, it may be a way to reduce costs and construction time. Yes, history has a funny way of repeating itself.
But investments in our national railway network alone won’t suffice. For railways to really rebuild community, it will require the rebirth of mass transit for our cities to feed into central railway stations. Signs of this are already here with the revival of streetcars in many cities and the success of Oregon Iron Works in being the first manufacturer of Streetcars in the United States since 1956. Thanks to the “Buy America Act,”over 60% of the parts and components are sourced from within the country to build the streetcars. Perhaps car manufacturers like GM could also gain from this mass transit renaissance? This is the future: job creation in the United States, decreasing our carbon emissions, rebuilding community and redefining the “American Dream,” and most importantly, freedom from foreign oil. May 8, 2010 marked the 3rd annual National Train Day. Take a moment to think of a new vision for the United States. Railways built this nation, and railways will build it again. Freedom from our energy woes, will come through rails.