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Ear to the Ground

This Common-Sense Solution Brought to You by the 19th Century

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Posted on Jan 12, 2009
Flickr / tomsaint11

Barack Obama wants to spend as much as a trillion dollars on the nation’s infrastructure, from roads to bridges. A video on his transition Web site (embedded below) even touts the economic advantages of fixing potholes. Why so car-centric? A new article in the Washington Monthly claims that spending some of that money on rail lines instead of roads could pay dividends.

Of course Obama’s vision extends far beyond the automobile, but it would be worth considering a broad range of suggestions as we prepare to make investments that will stay with us for decades to come.


Washington Monthly:

The railroad has long been reluctant to accept government investment in its infrastructure out of fear of public meddling, such as being compelled to run money-losing passenger trains. But now, like most of the industry, it has changed its mind, and it happily accepted Virginia’s offer last year to fund a small portion—$40 million—of the investment needed to get more freight traffic off I-81 and onto the Crescent Corridor. The railroad estimates that with an additional $2 billion in infrastructure investment, it could divert a million trucks off the road, which is currently carrying just under five million. State officials are thinking even bigger: a study sponsored by the Virginia DOT finds that a cumulative investment over ten to twelve years of less than $8 billion would divert 30 percent of the growing truck traffic on I-81 to rail. That would be far more bang for the state’s buck than the $11 billion it would take to add more lanes to the highway, especially since it would bring many other public benefits, from reduced highway accidents and lower repair costs to enormous improvements in fuel efficiency and pollution reduction. Today, a single train can move as many containers as 280 trucks while using one-third as much energy—and that’s before any improvements to rail infrastructure.

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By Trevor, January 14, 2009 at 10:13 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It is a conservative mantra that the free market provides everything, and that government only destroys when it gets into any economic sector—but the TRUTH that we need to constantly keep reminding people of is that private industry DESTROYED a perfectly profitable passenger rail industry during the 1960s.  Amtrak didn’t destroy private rail passenger service, although conservative would like to rewrite history to say that, it is the remnant of passenger service private industry had not yet killed off on its own.

On top of the fact that 19th century rail service across much of the country was built only after government gave tax incentives, land grants and outright cash payments. 

What if we made certain rail lines public infrastructure like auto/truck roads, opened the use to private operation done within certain parameters (certain percentage passenger)?

Sorry, personal autos/trucks in some form are here to stay, but increased rail traffic is needed for future sustainable growth.

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By Hulk2008, January 14, 2009 at 8:29 am Link to this comment

It does make sense to cut non-shipping travel as much as possible.  But would the existing management class actually accept a nation of US teleworkers?  Many of us actually drive many miles to an office where we literally pound keyboards all day - work that could have been done ANYwhere e.g. at home.  And we teleworkers already know the evil truth about that scenario:  ANYthing that does not require direct hands-on local support WILL be outsourced to some distant cheap labor - regardless of the quality produced by those remote workers.  Anyone who has called a “helpless desk” recently knows that misery well.  e.g. “Dear Customer, I am feeling your pain. Please do the needful. Goodbye.  -  click”

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By cyrena, January 14, 2009 at 5:57 am Link to this comment

By hark, January 13 at 7:51 am
(Unregistered commenter)

•  “I wonder if anyone actually read the article.  It’s about freight trains, not passenger trains.”

I read it hark, though I wonder if YOU did? It’s about BOTH. Or, to be more specific, it’s about the RAIL system, that can accommodate passenger trains, freight trains, and trains that haul passengers AND freight. This is exactly what the commercial airline industry has done for the past 4 decades, so it’s hardly a ‘new’ concept.

Here’s the part you must have missed from the article:

“ In a study recently presented to the National Academy of Engineering, the Millennium Institute, a nonprofit known for its expertise in energy and environmental modeling, calculated the likely benefits of an expenditure of $250 billion to $500 billion on improved rail infrastructure. It found that such an investment would get 85 percent of all long-haul trucks off the nation’s highways by 2030, while also delivering ample capacity for high-speed passenger rail.”

Needless to say, since the real point of the piece is to give us an idea of how many other related benefits there are to switching back rail transportation, it should be a no-brainer why rail transportation for ANYthing that has been typically transported via truck/car/airplane over the past 40 years can be far more efficiently transported by rail. I spent 25 years in the commercial airline industry, (now dead) and I figured that out a long time ago. In fact, it always amazed me (as relatively naive at the time, to the political manipulations in progress) that the rail transportation system in the US always seemed so antiquated (to me), in comparison to other countries.

It started out with such a bang, and the building of that rail system probably contributed more than any other single thing, to the industrial and manufacturing growth that boosted us into such highly productive efficiency. Certainly it was a huge upgrade to the Pony Express for getting mail and such from here to there, and the operation and upkeep of the system also employed and serviced multiple other industries; such as the old steel industry that CD Embry mentions here.

Now there are new industries that we can create to accomplish the same thing in terms of renewable energy and the maintenance and protection of the environment. The building, long term operation, and maintenance of the rail system will/should(?) compliment the other industries in contributing to future economic growth. The number of jobs generated by all of the related industries is another huge stimulus. This is 40 years too late of course, and now we’re at a point where there aren’t any other options.

Over the past 30 years at least, we’ve turned over so many of what had been previous government functions, (like the MAIL) to private commercial (read CORPORATE) interests. Since it has been in that corporate interest to keep building and using petroleum and other fossil fuel based products, the rail transportation system was allowed to languish, replaced by oil guzzling and highly polluting air ships. And of course what wasn’t being tranported via air, was being transported by car/truck, leading to worsening and worsening transportation/traffic, safety, and environmental conditions.

Now the air transportation system is the epitome of a White Elephant, - very high investment, very low return. (if any at this point). The Air Traffic system is jacked up, (at least the domestic system is) – bogged down like an overloaded circuit box, or an old electric grid that just wasn’t built to handle the demands of a 21st Century world.

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By BruSays, January 13, 2009 at 8:20 pm Link to this comment

For moving freight, we need it (and already have it) all: rail, trucks, planes, and ships. What we’ve don’t have are these systems in proper balance. 

Clearly, the bulk of our cross-country freight should move by train, not by trucks.

Overseas shipments and East Coast, West Coast and Gulf Coast freight can move efficiently by ship.

Local deliveries can be made from rail and port centers via trucks.

Time-sensitive freight (our roses and iPods) can be moved by air.

What screwed up the balance were beligerent railroads, the completion of the Interstate Highway System, unregulated suburban sprawl and cheap oil.

What’s going to change that balance is a cooperative rail system, a reduction in new highway construction, a slowdown on sprawl and the rise in the cost of oil. All that, and an electorate that begins and continues to light fires under the asses of local politicians.

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By nino, January 13, 2009 at 7:00 pm Link to this comment

Dr. Knowitall, PhD, PhD,

We all will be “staying home” more in the coming days but I take offense at “And stop killing animals.” Man has hunted, raised and butchered “animals” for thousands of years. I raise my own food and that means I have to take a living creatures life sometimes. It is not easy nor pleasant but it feeds us well and we know where it came from (not a truck, train of car!). When you pull that spinach plant out of the ground you are killing it! Murderer!

The rail system in this country was once the envy or the world. Then came the car. Then the fucking truck. Now, thousands die each year in the name of getting somewhere faster. There’s your killing of animals.

We need rail and we need it now! We do need an economy and trade to continue. You want to stay home? Where is your salt coming from? What about sugar, olive oil - or magnesium for gun powder?

We all have our opinions and I’ve now heard your. Good night.

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By Noah, January 13, 2009 at 4:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I am sorry. I do not have to admit that you make more sense than most. Your poor attempt at a lucid comment is ridiculous. I suggest stand up comedy, except you’re not even funny.

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By Dr. Knowitall, PhD, PhD, January 13, 2009 at 3:55 pm Link to this comment

The railroads just bought this country a lot of trouble.  Everybody otta just stay home where they belong and we won’t need an infrastructure.  All the infrastructure did was cause problems.  Face it.  We dont need an economy.  We don’t need “progress.”  Just stay home, mind your own business, and the world will be a better place.  No more industrial revolution.  No more burning fossil fuels.  Hell, the third world hasn’t even started their share yet.  We need to think outside the box.  No more economy!  No more transit!  No more banks!  No more wealth!  No more Buffets and Gates!  Let’s get reasonable.  A trillion bucks these days buys nothing.  The Bush administration proved that.  Madoff made off with billions like it was pocket change.  Are we nuts?  Get rid of the churches.  TAO Walker is right.  Kill computers, TVs and shut down the schools. 

Go home, stay there and think about what is SHOULD MEAN to be a human.  And stop killing animals. 

Above all, shut down Washington D.C. and the whole Middle East.  They both drag down civilization. 

Happy New Year!!  You have to admit, I make more sense than most.

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By C.D.Embrey, January 13, 2009 at 1:29 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

More track requires more steel rails. Maybe this will help bring steel production back to the U.S.A.

Electric trains require electric engines that will need to be manufactured in the U.S.A.

Electric trains will require more generation of electricity ...

Isn’t it about time to get the U.S.A. back to being a manufacturing country instead of being a country that flips hamburgers !

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By Hulk2008, January 13, 2009 at 10:34 am Link to this comment

Eventually the public WILL be forced to find public transporation.  With declining resources and increased population, the ultimate form of public transporation will evolve on its own - we will all be relegated to WALKING again. 
    In light of our public health crises maybe that won’t be such a bad thing after all.

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By jackpine savage, January 13, 2009 at 9:55 am Link to this comment

Duh, this nation’s industrial greatness was built and rode on the rail system that’s been dismantled since.  Rail makes far more sense than truck/highway transport…that’s why we don’t use it.

But any revitalization will run into all sorts of obstacles like property rights and the use of eminent domain.

We threw away a lot to get to this sorry state we are in now.  Extricating ourselves from this state will require first admitting the short-sighted decision making that led us here…and then a whole hell of a lot of work.

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By hark, January 13, 2009 at 8:51 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I wonder if anyone actually read the article.  It’s about freight trains, not passenger trains.  And it makes a great deal of sense.  Trains are much more efficient than trucks, have their own infrastructure and unclog the highways.  Furthermore, freight trains can be electrified practically right now, whereas passenger cars will take some time, and lugging huge hauls by those eighteen wheelers with a couple of flashlight batteries is unimaginable.

I have long wondered why we don’t get the trucks off the road, and their loads onto the rails, which are much easier to maintain than the highways and bridges that trucks tear apart.

This is a no-brainer.  But unfortunately, we live in a country with no brains.

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By dihey, January 13, 2009 at 6:49 am Link to this comment

The high-speed train from Amsterdam (Netherlands) to the Airport of Frankfort (Germany), a distance slightly greater than Houston-Austin or Houston-San Antonio takes 3 hours and 39 minutes. There are seven stops of approximately 5-10 minutes each. Because high-speed trains from Houston to Austin or Houston to San Antonio are likely to have fewer stops the travel time might be reduced to slightly more than 3 hours. That is only one hour more than by car and brings you from center to center of cities, hence no hassle of city driving. It also will relieve you of the hassle of driving to an airport, going through checks, and waiting for boarding. Lastly: the transportation by train is 100% electric!
With regards to employment, the construction of a high speed rail system from, say, Houston to Austin will take several years. It is not a flash in the pan.

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By davidperi, January 13, 2009 at 6:34 am Link to this comment

Trains and buses that I have riden in Europe and Scandianvia are on-time, efficient and fast.  I heard that the U.S. automakers are trying to built an electric car that goes 40 miles behind charges….only 40…when most travel to shopping centers or work that more than that.

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By Anne, January 13, 2009 at 6:21 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s about time we caught up with Europe. If it weren’t for our Big Oil/Detroit cartel, we would have inexpensive, reliable, green” transportation like other countries that govern with a hint of common sense.

Light rail connections with solar panels on the cars is a good start. And why can’t these same cars generate energy with their brakes as well?

Perhaps this new administration will hear the cries for common sense from the audience, if we yell loud enough.

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By Big B, January 13, 2009 at 5:53 am Link to this comment

Narrow minded americans still look at rail and other expansive public transportation programs as the trappings of a liberal and socialist Europe. However we will begin to realize very soon that as the petroleum runs out, people will move(and are) moving back towards the cities. This should make expanding public transportation easier. But wait! The economy is in the shitter! tax revenues are down, and our population continues to grow unchecked! We will not only run out of oil, but all petroleum by-products(plastics) in the next generation. We have known in the back of minds for a long time now that we needed to change, to develope new energy sources in order to face the 21st century. But because of anti-intellectualism, and our distrust of science, we have fallen behind in the developement of new technology. And because of our lack of finances and the last 20 years influence of what Hunter Thompson referred to as “the new dumb”, we may never be able to catch up to the future.

Besides, what are the odds that a nation that cannot figure out birth control, will be able to figure out efficient public transportation?

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By nino, January 13, 2009 at 2:50 am Link to this comment

We need rail big time!! The faster we get local and national rail systems online the better.

The car age is close to being over. There is a looming liquid fuel crises coming despite the current low cost of oil. Rail is the most efficient way to move people and goods.

The IEA (International Energy Agency) states that the worlds oil supply is declining at 6.7% per year! New oil discoveries are only fractional to usage. We burn three barrels of oil for every new one found.

You see, it is only a matter of time. Rail is the best bet we have!

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