I’ve posted the sample latter I published here the other day on a few relevant Facebook groups to try and spread the word, but I want to remind any registered-to-vote American readers to follow up on this. I know everyone reading this is a train fan. You’ve either been to Japan or Taiwan or you want to go, and that means you appreciate what real mass transit infrastrucute can do for a county. If you decided to go ahead and send my letter or a modified version, great-and if you decided to write your own, send it to me or post it here to share.
25 thoughts on “Mass transit pleas sample letter”
I want to ask why does the government have a monopoly on passenger rail service in America?
When you allow politicians to determine the quality of the entire passenger rail service, instead of getting the best passenger rail service, you get the best passenger rail service for a politician’s career.
That’s a cute line, but the reality is that almost all of the rails currently owned by the government were build by private enterprise well over 50 years ago, and much of it (most?) well over 100 years ago, and were taken over by the government when the private operators began to go bankrupt. I’m sure if investors could actually raise the huge sums of money required to build and operate a new rail line they could get government permission, but that simply isn’t going to happen. Do you think that roads should also be built and operated by private enterprise? What about the electrical grid, or the sewer system? The private sector has its place, for example manufacturing the trains and various other components of the system, but I doubt we will ever see a new private operator arise.
As far as I know, there are no private companies anywhere in the world building new rail lines, and almost all rail networks built by the private sector around the world were later nationalized. America is also one of the only developed countries-if not THE only one-in which this nationalization led to a halt in new development. We probably have the absolute worst rail system in the developed world, and the private sector hasn’t done a damn thing about it for the past half-century or more. Why not have the US government make a serious attempt for the first time ever?
Hmm.. Major government transportation infrastructure expenditures should be allocated according to the wishes of train fans. What a great concept. I’m a big fan of rocket ships, I think the government should spend billions developing personal rocket ships.
I’m just old enough to remember frequent trips across the midwest on the Rock Island Line Golden State Limited, at the absolute height of development of train travel. And it absolutely sucked, it is the worst form of long distance travel. Aircraft are much more fuel efficient for transporting people and light freight. There’s a good reason the railroads all went bankrupt.
Is that better or worse than corporate lobbying? Seriously though, I only listed a few specific projects that are already underway and could use more money. The general idea is to actually get expenditure for the sector. Allocation can come later. Although while on the topic, creating some kind of agency or study group or something to do a comprehensive survey and decide where to allocate the money would probably be far more efficient than an endless series of earmarks based on popular demand.
Cross continental passenger rail is probably dead, and I don’t see anyone looking to revive it. What we need is efficient long-medium rail lines in places where they would actually be used, such as along the coasts and perhaps select inland routes that studies show would actually be used. First step would be to fund those studies.
“Aircraft are much more fuel efficient for transporting people and light freight.”
Possibly true for people long distance, but I suspect actually nonsense for freight. Aircraft is only needed for freight that spoils or is time sensitive in some way.
Actually, Roy, they’ve already had that study. See this image:
Not many surprises here, although I wish my family’s home on the coast of South Carolina were somewhere closer to a proposed rail corridor. (And it strikes me that some obvious connections are left out — Toronto anyone?)
The efficient way to do this is to get trains on all the main point-to-point routes where they can really compete with airplanes as far as time and cost are concerned. This typically means routes of less than 300-400 miles or so. (Japan hands can see how this works in one of the best train-linked countries in the world: Tokyo-Nagoya has virtually no air service because the train is so much faster, while Tokyo-Osaka is typically a wash between air and rail, and Tokyo-Fukuoka is much easier by air.)
I love that map, although even I am wondering it the parallel lines in CA might be overkill. Isn’t one trunk line and more spokes a better model? Or is that just two possible routes? Either way, they’re finally getting one of them!
I should also add that the emphasis should be on LOCAL mass transit, for commuting and daily travel. And with local projects there has to be a lot more initiative from the local governments and citizens. In fact, the reason that we have so many proposals for future projects in the greater NYC area is that we already have the country’s most developed infrastructure. Like people in Japan or other heavily trainified (is there a real word for this?) regions, the train has become so indispensable that it has become a natural solution to transport needs and not an exotic alternative.
“And it strikes me that some obvious connections are left out—Toronto anyone?”
Toronto and Buffalo already have a decent link.
OK, one issue with that map. Although I think long distance rail from East to West is probably a boondoggle, why the hell isn’t the massive East Coast network even connected with the large Chicago area network, or the South Central one? We don’t need to go overboard (Shinkansen to Hokkaido, really?) but I feel like a high speed train link between the Northeast Corridor and Chicago would be very worthwhile.
I can’t imagine taking a plane between Tokyo and Osaka, even for the same price. The potential indignity of airline security and the better view from the Shinkansen, plus the central location of the train stations, make it no choice at all for me. The new Shinkansen in Taiwan apparently powned the domestic airline industry in about a year. Now that is a well thought out train line.
You send your letter yet Joe?
“The potential indignity of airline security and the better view from the Shinkansen, plus the central location of the train stations, make it no choice at all for me.”
With the added time getting to and from the airports factored in, I would actually use Shinkansen from Hakata to Tokyo over an airplane.
When was the last time you took a domestic flight in Japan? You walk through a metal detector and that’s it. It’s nothing like the ridiculous TSA circus in the United States.
OK, that’s true. But even the best domestic flight still has a whole lot more hassle and waiting around than getting on a Shinkansen. I just wouldn’t bother unless it’s a connection in a longer trip or saving me a significant amount of time.
On a related note, I was reading up on other train lines, planning fantasy trips, and saw this in the entry on the Trans Siberian:
How awesome is that? Trans-Siberian Shinkansen! I am SO riding that.
It really depends on your origin and destination. Kyoto and Hiroshima, for instance, are really annoying to access by air because they’re so far from their closest airports. If you’re going to Osaka or Fukuoka or some other place with a convenient airport, it really becomes a wash. Sure, you can run into the station with 5 minutes to spare and still make your train, but if you get there 10-20 minutes early you have to sit around waiting anyway. And the waiting facilities in airports are way better than the waiting facilities in train stations. You do have to be at the airport earlier than you would have to be at the train station, but in Japan it’s still not that bad–if you get to the airport 15 minutes before departure it’s generally enough to still make the flight (unlike the US, where they’ll release your seat to stand-bys if you show up that late).
I prefer the flying experience to the train experience, but it’s a matter of personal taste. And I disagree that the view is necessarily better from the Shinkansen — you can see stuff from time to time, sure, but the view is way more awesome on a clear day from 35,000 feet. One of my best travel experiences in recent months was a mid-day transcon hop from San Francisco to Charlotte in a window seat, cruising over the mountain states and seeing huge swaths of the USA that I had never really seen before.
Freight rail is a privately owned enterprise in America. I have no idea whether if it’s any good, but I do know that passenger rail owned by local, state, and federal governments are not good.
The business decisions made by Amtrak, NJ transit, MTA, are political in nature, not economical. That’s why none of them can turn a profit and rely heavily on public funding. The old passenger railroads were squeezed out by the construction of highways and airports in the 20th century. Not that I believe it was a bad thing, but that’s what happened. If modern train technology can compete with cars and planes, who would deliver it quicker? Entrepreneurs or politicians?
I believe private passenger would be beneficial in the long run. Just like the 19th century rail, a lot of these companies will fail, but even liquidated companies leave behind newly built railways and trains for the next group of entrepreneurs to try to build upon.
Take our broadband system. The infrastructure owned by companies like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T today were once built by companies like Lucent, MCI, the old baby bells, and other companies that no longer exist in its original incarnation. It’s not the best system in the world, but as soon as Verizon finished install fiber in our neighborhood I’ll be set. I can’t imagine having my internet provided by New Jersey or the Federal Government, if its like Amtrak I’ll probably be stuck with DSL and only DSL.
And yet, passenger rail service is heavily subsidized government enterprise, making it almost impossible for private companies to enter other than old steam engines for tourists. Who can compete against an entity that can write off hundreds of billions of dollars in debt each year?
Still, the question is whether or not private or public passenger rail is better, but why do people accept that only one company is needed to run a national passenger rail service in a country that is nearly 3.8 million sq mi.
“If modern train technology can compete with cars and planes, who would deliver it quicker?”
The problem is that you are comparing trains with cars, when you should be comparing trains + rails with cars + roads. Roads are almost entirely taxpayer funded and government built and managed, which shifts a huge portion of the total cost of the network into the public sector. I don’t see an inherent problem in having private companies run the actual TRAINS, but the RAIL network, as infrastructure, should be a public responsibility.
“And yet, passenger rail service is heavily subsidized government enterprise, making it almost impossible for private companies to enter other than old steam engines for tourists. Who can compete against an entity that can write off hundreds of billions of dollars in debt each year?”
Why is the old private sector boosterism being used to call for an entirely privatized rail system to compete with an entirely public road system? If you want real fair competition, try this thought experiment. Imagine if all roads were toll roads instead of just some, and you had to pay a small fee based on the number of passenger miles you drove, which would then be used to fund the network.
The emphasis on profitability also overlooks the vast benefits that well designed rail networks offer for urban planning.
“Still, the question is whether or not private or public passenger rail is better, but why do people accept that only one company is needed to run a national passenger rail service in a country that is nearly 3.8 million sq mi.”
I don’t actually disagree with that in principle, but I do think that the rail networks themselves should be a government project.
Regarding the broadband system. You mention Comcast, which is cable and was not built by a public corporation or AT&T in any way, but it WAS built with the cable franchise agreements, which is the equivalent of a massive government subsidy worth billions upon billions of dollars. These private companies would never have been able to build out their infrastructure without incredible amounts of government support. Incidentally, I switched from Comcast to Verizon fiber as soon as it became available, and it was wonderful. Comcast’s service is shit.
The important thing is that the efficacy of a rail network isn’t based on the endpoints, but on the utility of being able to easily travel between various points along the way. If I lived in Boston I might fly to DC and vice versa (until they get Amtrak up to full speed anyway), but from where I live by NYC I wouldn’t even consider flying to either DC OR Boston.
Actually, Roy, the public rails and private trains model you speak of is pretty close to the current situation in the UK, which was reached after a disastrous flirtation with full privatization (see here).
I think you’re fighting a quixotic battle here–the US, by and large, consists of drivers who love their cars, and the vast majority of the country is designed to cater to them, not to you and me. The logical solution for a rail lover is not to try imposing rail on America, but rather to move to a place where rail actually works and has a following.
Rail works and has a following in certain parts of the US, primarily the Northeast Corridor, but also in a number of other regional systems. California just passed a popular referendum giving billions in initial funding to a high speed rail corridor. When I visited Seattle a year ago they were in the final stages of building their first light rail line since converting the old street trolleys to trolley buses decades back. My home town of Montclair, New Jersey-built around our several old train stations-has gone from having only rush hour train service for transferring in Hoboken to getting a direct connection to Manhattan that runs at least hourly all day long. I see a lot of progress out there after a long period of decline and stagnation, and a lot more demand that isn’t being met.
My planes vs. trains decision has been influenced by a number of crappy experiences. 36 hours in Detroit airport, 24 hours in LA, 6 hours sitting on one tarmac with no gate to deplane, 3 hours on another after an 11 hour flight. If there is even a small chance of weather being a factor, I’ll go by train every time.
Maybe a practical example of medium-range rail would illuminate things. The CRANDIC line was founded in my area in 1903, it was a light passenger rail between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, about 25 miles. Passenger service was discontinued in 1953, ir is now a privately owned heavy freight line, it mostly hauls agricultural bulk goods and ethanol tankers. It runs right past my house, it’s insanely heavy traffic at times.
Due to extremely congested commuter traffic on the Interstate between CR and IC, the local government wanted to revive the CRANDIC as a passenger rail system. They did a test run last year. Due to the rails being not rated for passenger traffic speeds, the 25 mile trip took 2.5 hours. I can make the same run in a car in 18 minutes. Studies indicate that with an investment of a minimum of $70 million, they can get the tracks upgraded and rated for higher speeds so that the train can make the trip in 50 minutes.
Nobody is ever going to take a 30mph commuter train on this route. Even if they did get it running, it would take hundreds of millions of dollars of additional mass transit infrastructure investment to get people from the railheads to their widely-distributed destinations.
Thanks for that description of your local system, Charles. Unfortunately I don’t know what that area is like so I can’t even give an uninformed layman’s opinion on what might work there, but $70 million sounds fairly cheap to get a working rail line, doesn’t it? I think that commuter rail links (which this sounds like) ideally go from residential districts where people can either walk or bike, or drive a short distance to their station, and then be able to walk to work from the other end, and you get the most short term payoff from buildings trains in areas that are already set up this way, such as the new light rail in Seattle. Building a rail line and stations in an area that isn’t already set up this way is a form of urban planning, designed to encourage the development of this kind of community, the way that it has done so in say Japan. I personally think that this would be a positive development, especially when I compare older American suburbs, such as NE New Jersey where I am from, which is a continuous suburban zone, but broken up into identifiable towns with walkable commercial districts centered around old train stations, with newer suburbs, which tend towards uniform swaths of highway oriented strip-malls, designed purely for an automobile lifestyle.
To take a tangent, one big future advantage of rail that I haven’t even touched on in these recent discussions is energy. While moving the automobile fleet from gasoline to alternative energy requires an incredible amount of logistics, infrastructure, and likely even replacement vehicles, almost all (if not all) modern rail systems are powered solely by the electric grid, and can run off whatever clean and/or domestic sources of energy become readily available over the lifetime of the system without having to make even minor changes to the rail network or trains themselves.
Well this thread is pretty dead but I felt the need to follow up since it appears I didn’t make my point.
There are 2 proposals to improve commuter travel between CR and IC.
$70M: improve the CRANDIC rail line to get it up to 30MPH.
$400M: add 2 lanes to the 4 lane Interstate highway.
It is likely that even $400M wouldn’t get the CRANDIC anywhere close to the 65mph car trip, commuters will not take double the time to commute via train and then end up having to take the bus or walk to their final destinations. And the rail line would be a drain on tax revenues forever, it would require subsidies while auto traffic generates gasoline tax revenue.
So unless you know a way to build a 25 mile bullet train line for less than $400M that goes 65mph, rail infrastructure has zero chance here. The CRANDIC was originally a commuter rail line so it goes directly between both cities’ central business districts (which are mass transit hubs). So this is about as good as it gets, this is the ideal situation, these two communities grew up around this rail line.
Charles, that 70 million is to establish service between downtown Cedar Rapids and downtown Iowa City. Getting the train to run to downtown Cedar Rapids is particularly expensive due to the use of the current infrastructure.
To establish service from downtown Iowa City to Cedar Rapids, terminating passenger service at the Eastern Iowa Airport (not ideal, but certainly workable) would only require 35 million.
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