Patriots Take the Train

September 21, 2001

Dean Baker
Cleveland Plain Dealer, Sep. 21, 2001

In the wake of last week’s terrorist attack, there were several accounts of people who planned to buy shares of airline stock as a show of patriotism and an expression of support for the economy. While the sentiment is admirable, the gesture may be somewhat misguided—it is not clear that paying too much for shares of airline stock is really going to help the economy. In the same vein, Congress stands prepared to make a much bigger mistake, if it rushes through with an airline bailout package that could carry a price tag as high as $24 billion.

Last Tuesday’s tragedy will force us to reconsider many issues. Near the top of this list should be the structure of a 21st century transportation system. In the last three decades, airline travel has increased by more than 300 percent, as lower fares made it accessible to a far larger segment of the population. One result of the surge in air travel has been the neglect of the nation’s passenger rail system.

Amtrak, as a publicly run corporation, has been given a virtually impossible task of competing with the airlines. Unlike privately run companies, Amtrak was never allowed to go into private capital markets to borrow the money needed to upgrade its tracks and trains. Instead it was forced to rely on appropriations from members of Congress, many of who opposed its very existence. 

As a result, train service in this country has deteriorated through time. The number of routes continues to dwindle, and the travel time on these routes has increased, because tracks are not properly maintained. While modern trains in Europe and Japan can reach speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour, trains on long distance routes in the United States often creep along at less than 30 miles per hour.    

The Federal Aviation Authority and the airlines will work out better security arrangements to prevent future hijackings. But one thing seems certain: air travel will never be as quick and convenient as it was prior to last Tuesday. As a result, trains will suddenly appear a far more attractive form of transportation. 

The arithmetic is straightforward. Suppose a high speed train can average 175 miles an hour after taking into account stops. This train would cover the distance from New York to Washington in less than one and a half hours. The 700 miles from New York to Chicago could be covered in four hours. Even the 950 miles from Los Angeles to Seattle would only take five and a half hours. 

Now compare this with air travel, which requires not only the flight time, but possibly an additional 1.5 -2 hours of security checks. Of course trains can go in and out of central cities. Air travel often requires commutes of an hour or more to distant airports. On a straight time basis, trains should be very competitive for trips along the heavily populated East Coast and between the East and Midwest, and even between the major West Coast cities. It is only on transcontinental trips that air travel would enjoy a clear edge.

In addition to the fact that trains can be faster, and pose fewer security problems, they are also enormously preferable from an environmental standpoint. The per passenger emissions of greenhouse gases are far less per passenger mile on trains than planes. This should be extremely important now even to those who don’t take the threat of global warming seriously.

Our allies in Europe and Japan have decided to move ahead with an agreement that will curb their emissions of greenhouse gases in an effort to slow global warming. They are already paying higher prices for gasoline and energy as a result of this agreement. We cannot expect their full cooperation in a war against terrorism at the same time that we spit in their face on an issue that they (and virtually all scientists) have come to view as incredibly important to the future of the planet. The United States will have to do its part to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The airlines face a crisis that is not of their own making. But it does not make sense to subsidize a form of travel that is no longer as commercially viable as it had been in the world that existed before last Tuesday. Some public money is certainly appropriate—to assist laid off workers and small businesses that were directly affected by the curtailing of air travel—but our money could be far better spent designing a transportation system that meets the needs of the 21st century. And this means a vastly expanded role for train travel.

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