The Whistle's Echo

We'll bring back rail transit, but at what cost?

The news out of Washington is heartening for once. The reason it is news is disheartening once again. The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission's recommendations cut both ways.

In brief, the commission proposes spending $357 billion, or more than $8 billion a year, to expand intercity passenger rail service across the United States by 2050. If that sounds like a lot of money, it should, but the price seems paltry to me. The scope of the proposal is so narrow that it will take a lot more public spending to really revitalize a system of intercity rail that we once had and threw away.

There's no way to disagree with the need. Something has to augment the automobile, the motor bus and the airplane in providing intercity travel options this century. We can't afford the expenditure of fuels that are consumed in the locomotion of those present options.

The choice of rail passenger service is a real alternative. It once worked grandly, before there were two or three cars in every family and a highway system to permit access to virtually every community in America for almost everyone, and a plethora of airports and aircraft to accommodate those in a hurry to fly between cities.

But in a democracy, rail travel failed to secure the rider votes it needed to sustain itself. And it being a free market, railroad directors determined it wasn't worth the investment to maintain rail service. The Amtrak vestiges have been propped up by federal subsidy, or there would be no passenger service at all in this country, unlike Europe, for example, where nations kept up the rail beds and the rolling stock to serve a populace that uses railways to traverse the relatively shorter distances involved there.

But Amtrak routes, using existing rail freight rights of way for the most part, are thin. Other than four transcontinental links, an East Coast corridor, a West Coast-southern border link and a network out of Chicago, the Amtrak lines serve few population centers and very few towns and villages. It was not always thus. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a host of American towns and whole cities grew up around railroad lines. Atlanta, for example, went from a spot on the map of Georgia to a metropolitan state capital because of its position as a rail center. Knoxville, with its pivotal mid-south location, went from a river city to a railhead in a few short decades, served by three or four rail companies and a spider web of connections for both freight and passenger service. In a way, Knoxville suffered from the benefit of its strategic site as state and federal highways, then interstate highways, made rail transportation appear quaint and unnecessary except for a few high-volume commodities, such as coal.

I grew up in an area of northern Indiana where rail service around Chicago was so well developed it was hard to drive more than a few miles without encountering a major, busy rail crossing. Passenger traffic was heavy in my youth. It was convenient and regulated, to the extent that my hometown, pop. 1,100, was a whistle stop on the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Many a morning my dad and I would walk down to the main street crossing, next to the freight depot, and flag down the five o'clock local, which was compelled by law to stop for us if we waved a flashlight as it rounded the coal docks' bend heading into town from the east. The train crew wasn't all that happy about busting a tight schedule to bring that thundering line of cars to a halt for a fare of less than $5 for a roundtrip ticket to Chicago, but it beat fighting the motor vehicle traffic that already posed a problem getting into and out of the Chicago Loop at the time.

So it would be today. But the opportunity has been tossed aside, with the road beds torn up and the rights-of-way sold off. There may not have been a more terrible waste in my lifetime in America than the abandonment of rail-passenger potential. I don't think $350 billion will restore passenger service in any meaningful way to most Americans. I hope I'm wrong, but I think it will cost a lot more than that.