Trains are fun,
But too much fuss;
A high-speed bus?
America doesn’t lend itself to speedy trains. Aside from the crowded Northeast corridor and maybe California, its cities are too small and too far apart. The paying public just isn’t there. Sure, there are plenty of places which can and do support short-haul subway, trolley, light rail, and even heavy rail for commuters. But for most intercity travel, trains cost too much for too few passengers. By and large, rail won’t fly.
There are other problems too. One is that most of the high-speed money would have to come from the federal government, automatically making it a congressional boondoggle. For it to pass, there would need to be a rail line in every state. Ponder if you will the Great Falls-Billings Express. If there isn’t something for everybody in the plan, there won’t be anything for anybody.
Nor are there enough champions. For highways, we see road builders, automakers and oil companies. For airports there are plane makers, oil companies, and chambers of commerce. But trains don’t use that much fuel, and in any case are mostly made in Canada and Japan. We don’t yet have a potent rail-building lobby.
And with our newly diminished interest in global warming, public support for efficiency is dwindling, too. Rail sounded exciting when gas cost $4 a gallon, but at $2.75, maybe I’ll just drive. The concept of “peak oil” seems likewise to have peaked. The oil cartel is back to regularly announcing dramatic new finds, whether or not they’ll ever be able to get a pump into them. At any rate, the public is no longer scared.
Plainly, if we were serious about rail we’d need to jack up the price of gas so that drivers would face serious choices. In Europe the going rate is $7 a gallon. But here in the United States, politicians are afraid to raise the gas tax at all. There’s no way trains can compete with that, other than for commuting.
Yet while news for train travel is pretty gloomy on the auto front, it’s much cheerier when contending with airlines. We can thank Osama bin Laden for much of that. Airport security procedures are now annoying enough to drive passengers back into their cars, or even trains, if there were any. Plus the airlines themselves have started nickel-and-diming us to the point where wise passengers carry food from home and strive to live out of a carry-on bag. Just for spite we might ride a high-speed train from New York to Chicago, if we could find one. Unfortunately, that’s not a sufficient business plan to start construction.
One rail asset our country does thankfully enjoy is old rights-of-way. Some are used for freight, others are abandoned. Most are not straight enough for high-speed service, but they would offer a great launching-pad for land acquisition if we should ever get our transportation act together.
But perhaps a better, if unspoken, option is the high-speed bus. Government doesn’t support intercity buses today. But why not? We’ve already built the highways. Let’s now build terminals at major interchanges and supply high-quality buses with real rest rooms and vendors, running on frequent schedules. Then plan a local bus to meet each arrival and head straight downtown. We’d provide parking too. The buses would go the speed limit, but this kind of infrastructure would make the system much more rapid than what we’ve got now.
OK, so you might not be willing to bus from Philly to Denver, but you wouldn’t take a train either. You might, however, bus from Cincinnati to Cleveland rather than fly, if it were done well. In any case, the job won’t get done by high-speed rail, so let’s get working on a practical alternative.