Dead nation walking

We subsidize highways and airports. The there's passenger rail.

| May 18, 2015

Many people seem to think that America has lost its sense of purpose. They overlook the obvious: that we are striving to become the Bulgaria of the western hemisphere. At least we already have enough vampires to qualify.

You don’t have to seek further than the USA’s sub-soviet-quality passenger railroad system, which produced the spectacular Philadelphia derailment last week that killed eight people and injured dozens more. Six days later, we’re still waiting for some explanation as to why the train was going 100 miles-per-hour on a historically dangerous curve within the city limits.

The otherwise excellent David Stockman posted a misguided blog last week that contained all the boilerplate arguments denouncing passenger rail: that it’s addicted to government subsidies and that a “free market” would put it out of its misery because Americans prefer to drive and fly from one place to another.

One reason Americans prefer to drive — say, from Albany, NY, to Boston — is that there is only one train a day, it never leaves on time or arrives on time, and it takes twice as long as a car trip for no reason that makes any sense. Of course, this is exactly the kind of journey ( slightly less than 200 miles) that doesn’t make sense to fly, either, given all the dreary business of getting to-and-from the airports, not to mention the expense of a short-hop plane ticket.

I take the popular (and gorgeous!) Hudson River Amtrak train between Albany and New York several times a year because bringing a car into Manhattan is an enormous pain in the ass. This train may have the highest ridership in the country, but it’s still a Third World experience. The heat or the AC is often out of whack, you can’t buy so much as a bottle of water on the train, the windows are gunked-over, and the seats are often broken. They put wifi on trains a couple of years ago but it cuts out every ten minutes.

Anyway, even if Americans seem to prefer for the present moment to drive or fly, it may not always be the case that they will be able to. Several surprising forces are gathering to take down the Happy Motoring matrix. Peak oil is actually not playing out in the form of too-high gasoline prices, but rather a race between a bankrupt middle class unable to pay the total costs of motoring and an oil industry that can’t make a profit drilling for hard-to-get oil. That scenario is plain to see in the rapid rise and now fall of shale oil.

Nowhere on earth is there passenger rail that pays for itself. But, of course, you don’t hear anyone complain about the public subsidies for driving or air travel. Who do you think pays for the interstate highway system? What major airport is privately owned and operated?

Some of the decisions made over our rail system are so dumb you wonder how the executives on board ever got their jobs. For instance the train between New York City and Chicago never runs on time for the simple reason that Amtrak sold the right-of-way to the CSX freight line. CSX then tore up the second track because there was an antiquated state real estate tax on railroad tracks. As a result, freight trains have priority on the single track and the passenger trains have to pull over on sidings every time a freight needs to go by. Earth calling the New York state legislature. Rescind the stupid tax.

America is going to need trains more than it thinks right now, despite what the “free market” says. The condition of our trains is symptomatic of the shape of the nation. The really sad part is we missed the window of opportunity to build a high-speed system. Capital will soon be too scarce for that. But we still have a conventional network that not so many decades ago was the envy of the world, and we know exactly how to fix it. We just don’t want to. No will left. Apparently we’d rather just turn into the walking dead.

Reproduced with permission from James Howard Kunstler’s blog, Clusterfuck Nation. Kunstler’s books are available at the usual places. He urges you to support local bookstores.

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