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SMART trains, intermodal travel and Obama’s love of the rail

In the US, we treat cars as a right and trains as a privilege.

  • Our nation’s highways have a trust fund- the Federal Highway Trust Fund – supported by a gasoline tax. Every year, our federal rail system- Amtrak – has to request funds.
  • Last year, the federal government spent $30 billion on highways. They gave less than a billion to Amtrak.
  • For every 20 cents states spend on roads, the federal government provides an additional 80 cents, but railroads aren’t guaranteed the same deal.

Amtrak president Alex Kummant summed up the difference in spending for trains and cars: “If you actually look at the amount of public capital that flows into the rail network per passenger, it’s like $40 a passenger for Amtrak and $500 to $700 per automobile out there through the highways.”

As a result of lack of support, our countries rail service has been shrinking over the past 5 decades. According to the New York Times, “passenger miles” traveled on intercity rail has fallen by two-thirds since 1960 and in the nearly 4 decades since Congress voted to create Amtrak (by consolidating the passenger operations of freight railroads) highway travel has gone from being 300 times larger to 900 times larger than train travel.

Obama to the rescue?

Barack Obama and other Senators are hoping to change that. They have sponsored a bill offering states the same 80/20 financing match for money spent on intercity train service. The Senate approved the bill by a wide margin, but the White House is threatening to veto.

The future of national rail may rely heavily on our choice of president. While Obama’s support for trains is obvious, Senator John McCain opposed Amtrak subsidies while he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. McCain’s chief gripe was with the money-losing long distance routes which require “a continuing need for large infusions of capital from taxpayers”.

For some reason in America we expect our rail system to make money when in reality there is no national passenger railroad anywhere in the world that is profitable. This doesn’t mean trains aren’t successful, after all, all transportation systems cost taxpayers money

Ross Capon of the National Association of Railway Passengers argues that criticisms of Amtrak funding have lost perspective. “The highway system, as a whole, is not profitable. The aviation system, as a whole, is not profitable. Amtrak is basically the entire ball of wax: the rail equivalent of the air traffic control system, the airport authorities and the carriers. They’re holding passenger rail up to a standard that no one asks the other forms of transportation to meet.”

Subsidies for planes and cars

The Sierra Club did a comparison of government subsidies for different forms of transport and found that in 2003, Amtrak received $1.04 billion, airplanes $15.9 billion and cars $31.6 billion.

When we begin to consider emissions, it’s obvious our national funding priorities need some adjusting. Trains produce between five and 10 times fewer emissions per passenger than cars and planes, depending on how full they are, their vehicle efficiency and the length of the trip (shorter air travel is more polluting due to the higher fuel needs of takeoffs and landings). This doesn’t account for the fact that jet fuel produces not just CO2, but also nitrous CHK oxide with a global warming potential 300 times worse than carbon dioxide.

The return of the rail

For the past half century, it’s been easy to argue that trains have been becoming a relic of the past. Fueled by cheap gas and more recently, low cost air, the popularity of the car and plane have far outpaced the train. According to a 2001 US Department of Transportation study of trips longer than 50 miles, 56% of miles were traveled in a personal vehicle, 41% in a plane, 2% in a bus and less than 1% in a train.

But with the rising price of oil, times are changing. In the past year ridership on Amtrak increased by 12% and some routes are at capacity. If you compare the highly popular Northeast routes with the airlines, rail service between Washington D.C. and New York now has 63% of the air-rail market share and the New York-Boston route has 49% share.

Even on a more local level, it’s becoming increasingly popular to ride the rails. Light-rail ridership is booming in cities like Charlotte, NC (34%), Baltimore (16.8% for Q1 2008), Minneapolis (16.4%), St. Louis (15.6%) and San Francisco (12.2%). In the first quarter of this year, commuter rail ridership is growing in the double-digits for cities like Seattle (27.9%), Harrisburg, PA(17%), Oakland, CA (15.8%), Stockton, CA (13.9%), Pompano Beach, FL (12.9%) and Philadelphia (10.4%).

The tipping point for train travel

Even in a city famous for its car culture the Los Angeles Metro Rail is experiencing a boom in ridership. On June 17th of this year the system had their biggest day ever when over 50,000 Angelinos rode the Metro: a 15.6% increase over the same period the previous year.

One new rider to the line, Thair Peterson, said he made the switch when gas prices hit his “tipping point” of $3.30/gallon and that even if prices drop, he won’t commute by car again unless prices fall below $2/gallon.
We all have a tipping point when cars/planes become just too expensive. Gil Giulietti is director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority whose commuter rail line between Miami and Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach has experienced a 20% increase in ridership in the past couple of months.

He believes we need to give people more credit for being willing to get out of their cars. “Nobody believed that people would actually give up their cars to ride public transportation. But in the last year, and last several months in particular, we have seen exactly that.”

When a train beats a plane

To provide the infrastructure for this growing group of train travelers, we need to think ahead. Upgrading Amtrak’s aging trains will be a slow process given that railroad suppliers have shrunk over the past few decades. Amtrak president Kummant argues we need to seriously reprioritize. “When is the federal government going to get serious about fundamental spending on infrastructure in this country like it did in the 1950s and early 1960s. We are way below the GDP levels of spending as a percentage of the federal budget.”

To make long distance train travel competitive with the airlines, many look to Europe and Asia as an example and argue we need more speed. Japan’s Bullet trains, France’s TGV and Spain’s AVE are all strongly competitive with the airlines. Take the the route between Seville and Madrid. The high speed AVE makes the 290 mile journey in 2 and 1/2 hours which is more than double the time it takes to fly, but more than 80% of travelers along this route choose the fast train over the plane.

With the growing hassle of flying (i.e. longer security checks, longer advance check-in times required), door-to-door travel by fast train is often quicker than by plane. I recently took the new fast train, the AVE, between Barcelona and Madrid to shoot a video. I left my apartment in central Barcelona for the station just a half hour before departure time (I now leave over 2 hours early when catching a plane). After catching the wrong subway and passing through a 10 second security check, I boarded the train and with time to spare (and within 15 minutes we were traveling at 300 kilometers/hour (186 mph)).

How Southwest Airlines stopped a bullet train

While the Spanish government has committed $119 billion to growing their fast train network, high speed rail in this country has faced tough opposition. In the 1990s, Texas attempted to begin building fast train service, but Southwest Airlines sued and stopped the project. Today the 4,000 mile long project is being considered again, but the pricetag is 20 times higher.

In the late ’90s, Florida became the first state to pledge a significant amount of money to high speed rail- an action which drew praise from President Clinton-, but Jeb Bush- in one of his first actions as state governor- pulled the state financing saying it posed too much risk to taxpayers.

This fall, one of the biggest high speed rail proposals will be put to a vote as Californians decide whether to provide $9.95-billion in funding for a 700-mile statewide high-speed rail system that would turn a 9 and a 1/2 hour drive from San Francisco to San Diego into a 3 and a 1/2 hour train trip. While voters recently approved a $25 billion highway construction project, the train is more controversial, even Schwarzenegger has been half-hearted with his approval.

Dan Leavitt, the deputy director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, argues Californians need to get their priorities in order. “How can we say we can’t afford this in California, the biggest state in the country, when these systems are being built all over the world?”

Unlike highway construction, high speed rail could eventually pay for itself- as is true of systems in Europe and even the new service in Taiwan beat profitability projections-. Another potential payback of the proposed electric rail project could result from the recently approved California law AB32 which calls for a reduction in greenhouse gases and carbon trading credits. The train is expected to cut California’s CO2 emissions by 12 billion pounds per year by 2020 and 18 billion pounds by 2030.

“Liberals” against the train

Even on a much smaller scale rail projects seem to elicit more disapproval than highway construction, even from “liberals”.

My parents live in Cloverdale, CA- a small community 90 miles north of San Francisco- where the main way in and out of town is Highway 101. There is a rail line that connects their town to points South until it terminates in the town of Larkspur (which also happens to have a ferry service into San Francisco), but although the Cloverdale train depot has been recently renovated, there is no train. Yet.

There is a plan. It’s called SMART (Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit) and it would provide service along a 70-mile corridor if voters pass a tax increase to fund it this November. While it would cost 450 million dollars- to buy new trains and upgrade the tracks- when I interviewed SMART’s Chris Coursey last month he explained this is a “relative bargain”.

“On a per mile basis, we’re adding a lane to highway 101 now and the average price of adding that lane is about 20 million dollars a mile. The SMART project, the rail project, is about 6 million dollars a mile so it’s a good deal for the money.”

Perhaps because voters generally don’t have to pass bonds for road building- these funds are pulled from more hidden sources like gas taxes-, highways construction doesn’t usually get stalled by elections. Two years ago the SMART initiative was on the ballet, but it received just short of the 2/3rds vote needed to pass tax increases in California.

Giving trains a right of way

Most of the opposition came from the “liberal” county of Marin which seemed to exhibit a bit of NIMBYism (Not in my backyard). I recently visited left-leaning friends of mine there who explained their opposition to the measure. Her first point: since there are no overpasses to take roads in her town over the rail lines, a passing train will hold up traffic.

This sounded like a logical concern, but with just a quick search online I learned that the SMART trains would be just 2 cars long: too short to block an intersection. While it’s true that traffic will be stopped to allow a train to pass, it is a matter of seconds: what Marin resident Walter Strakosch, a member of Friends of SMART and a 40-year veteran of the transportation industry, considers insignificant.

“We hear constantly from SMART naysayers about grade-crossing delays when trains pass. With SMART that could be 30 to 45 seconds. At a traffic light you stop from one to three minutes, but that seems OK. A two-car SMART train carrying 200 people, which may take that many cars off the roads, however, is not OK to naysayers. Go figure.”

Intermodal transit hubs

My “liberal” Marin friend had one more objection to the proposed train: since most of the locations we visit- homes/jobs/shopping- are not all located next to the stations, who will use it?

To expect one mode of transportation to provide door-to-door service for all is old thinking. Our future is all about intermodal transit hubs where one mass transit service connects easily to another. The SMART stations will be hubs for new bus, shuttle, and bike routes (there is a 70-mile bike path planned for the entire length of the train).

While it may seem a big leap to expect people unaccustomed to using public transportation to give up the freedom of a car, the train- and all its associated glamour – is the perfect place to start. SMART’s Coursey elaborated on this point from his chosen interview location next to the picture perfect Santa Rosa depot, the location of the 1904 Hitchcock film “Shadow of a Doubt”.

 “Our studies actually show that more people will use all kinds of public transit when the train is here because it’s attractive. The romance of the rails type of thing brings people to a train where they wouldn’t necessarily take a bus that’s serving the same route for them.”

21st Century urban planning

The train also fits perfectly into what is being forecast as the model for 21st Century urban living: transit-oriented development. Coursey pointed to the abandoned field surrounding the depot and began to talk about plans for “densifying the urban core” and how developers, enticed by the arrival of the railroad, would be transforming the empty 5 and 1/2 acres into mixed use building (residential, retail and commercial). “There’ll be a plaza here. This will become the center of the city again a real activity center.”

After finishing my interview I took a walk around Santa Rosa’s historic railroad square- the site of restaurants, cafes and a hotel- and I could imagine the future. Prospects seem good for approval of the SMART this November. After all, Congress just passed a nearly $15 billion Amtrak bill that would finally allow our national rail to make long-term plans and to try to prepare for its growing ridership. While Bush is threatening to overturn it, it passed with a veto-proof margin (as did a similar bill in the Senate).

Even long-time Amtrak critic and bill sponsor Representative John Mica seemed swept up in the excitement over rail travel. “Nothing could be more fitting to bring before the Congress today, on a day when gasoline has reached $4.05 a gallon across the United States on average.”

Trains still don’t have the same privileges as cars, but it’s a start. As one anonymous reader wrote in defense of the SMART train:  “This is not a zero sum game. We need rail, bike paths, buses and ferries… lots of transit choices, to get us out of our car-dependency mode and finally reduce our emissions.”