Why no national train grid?
Federal government inaction blocks creation of nationwide rail service
FOR THE RECORD (Op-Ed)
The Charlotte Observer
Posted on Wed, Oct. 24, 2007
From George Chilson, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers:
The opening of Charlotte’s south light rail transit line next month is one of the nation’s most impressive municipal efforts to give people travel choices that conserve energy, combat congestion and address global warming.
Combined with commuter rail services planned for Charlotte, a strong commitment to pedestrian- and transit-friendly real estate development, and existing and planned intercity train services, the new light rail service symbolizes Charlotte’s emergence as one of the nation’s most livable areas.
Every American city should have a system as comprehensive and coordinated as the one Charlotte will have. Gasoline is approaching $3 per gallon and likely to rise further in the long run. Runways and roadways are more clogged than ever, and getting worse. Study after study predicts crippling gridlock at airports and in the skies, and the American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials anticipates that, by 2020, 90 percent of urban interstates will be at or above capacity. Beyond the local and national concerns are the increasing worries that all those idling cars and planes are hurtling us toward irreversible climate change.
Department of Energy figures show that planes burn 20.5 percent more energy per passenger-mile than Amtrak (a passenger-mile is one passenger carried one mile). And, due to high altitude emissions, planes’ climate change impact is double or triple that of Amtrak’s, depending on length of trip.
The National Association of Railroad Passengers, whose board is meeting in Charlotte beginning Thursday, has laid out a vision for change that would connect Asheville, Hickory and Wilmington to a “grid and gateway” passenger train system networking across America, vastly expanding service between Raleigh, Charlotte and points beyond (including a direct Charlotte-Charleston connection). The major terminals would connect long-distance, commuter and high-speed train services, creating a networked grid connecting the Triad, Triangle and other major cities across the southeast and mid-Atlantic.
The beauty of NARP’s vision is that it is achievable. Almost all the rail lines or rights of way in our vision are already in place. Routes were chosen based on demonstrated demand—either from Bureau of Transportation Statistics data or from demand indications in the establishment of new air routes or roadways.
In fact, not only is NARP’s vision achievable, work has begun in North Carolina and across the country to provide multiple options for short-, medium- and long-distance travelers. Other states with notable intercity passenger train programs include California, Washington, Illinois, Wisconsin and Maine.
What’s keeping the network from happening everywhere? The federal government has failed to demonstrate leadership and commitment to funding an integrated national passenger train system. This shortsightedness has left us with too few passenger trains, serving too few destinations—almost two-thirds less service than America had in 1971 before Amtrak started.
North Carolina and some other states have tried to fill the void, but have been hampered because the federal government provides no matching funds for intercity passenger trains, unlike for highways, urban transit and aviation. It will take federal leadership and funding, in partnership with states and railroads, to create a national passenger train grid. What if President Eisenhower 50 years ago had left interstate highway planning and funding to the states?
For The Record offers commentaries from various sources. The views are the writer’s, and not necessarily those of the Observer editorial board.