Logic and American public policy all too often have zero connection to one other. The distance between what government ought to be doing, especially about infrastructure–and what government is, or more accurately, isn’t doing–is especially obvious when it comes to rail.
Anyone who has ventured onto the nation’s highways can appreciate the benefits of shifting freight delivery to rail from the huge number of long-haul trucks that clog those highways. But those benefits aren’t limited to safer and easier driving for motorists, or even to less wear and tear on roadways that taxpayers must maintain at significant cost. Trains pose far less threat to the environment:
In absolute terms, the picture is clear. Worldwide, road users account for about 71% of transport CO2 emissions, with railway companies making up less than 1.8%, next to 12.3% for aviation and 14.3% for shipping, according to the International Energy Agency and International Union of Railways.
When it comes to passenger travel, the picture is cloudier because the United States simply does not prioritize travel by rail, and a traveler’s ability to make an informed choice–to decide how to get from point A to point B–is thwarted by the fact that all too often, no trains run between those points. Even when passenger trains are available, they are often old and the tracks poorly maintained, thanks to years of underfunding Amtrak. (To the extent that there is an exception, it is in the heavily populated Northeast Corridor, where the Acela is extremely popular.)
My husband is a train buff who follows news about Amtrack; he recently shared an item that illustrates America’s neglect of the country’s rail infrastructure.
When Amtrak was last reauthorized by Congress, the criteria for the board of directors was changed to bring a broader swath of members to the board from outside of the Northeast Corridor.
Today’s board members, all appointees from the Obama administration, are all continuing service after the expiration of their appointed terms. Amtrak’s by-laws allows board members to continue to serve until a new board member has been nominated by the White House and confirmed by the United States Senate.
At this moment, every board position from the chairman down to the most recent appointee are all out-of-term and waiting to leave when their successor has been confirmed by the senate.
As of now, the Biden White House has not nominated any new members to the board after being in office for 15 months.
Given Joe Biden’s long support for– and personal use of– train travel, this is especially annoying.
My husband and I have traveled extensively on trains in Europe and Asia. They are plentiful and up-to-date (bathroom facilities in each sleeper car, excellent dining options. wifi, etc.). In Europe, destinations are closer to each other, but in China, we were on trains that took days transversing lengthy, often unpopulated, landscapes.
Our last train trip in the U.S. was from San Francisco to Chicago (Indiana has refused to participate financially in rail, so options from Chicago to Indianapolis are scant. That leg required MegaBus…)
We had booked the best sleeper on the train. To say it was a disappointment would be a distinct understatement. The cars were at least 40 years old, and tired. When the seats in the compartment were turned down to make beds, you couldn’t open the door to the bathroom. Needless to say, there was no Wifi. Thanks to delayed maintenance of tracks, we hit a place where they’d washed out (I no longer remember where). We sat for several hours while Amtrak figured out how to re-route us onto tracks owned by carriers operating freight trains. Ultimately, we were 19 hours late getting into Chicago.
That trip was a nightmare, but we were on vacation–we didn’t have to be anywhere at any particular time, so we were annoyed, but not terribly inconvenienced. Obviously, however, “service” like that will never generate the sort of robust business and personal travel we routinely saw in Europe, where businesspeople filled one train–with Wifi, and various other amenities–that ran every twenty minutes from Madrid to a city in southern Spain, roughly the distance between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.
Multiple studies show that rail travel is environmentally superior to both air and automobile travel. It is indisputably more pleasant–and frequently takes less time than air travel when going through security and travel to and from the airport is factored in.
We won’t have the benefits that rail travel can provide so long as Amtrak is underfunded and its board consists entirely of holdovers. Rail needs to be a much higher priority.