Saturday is National Train Day with events scheduled in all 50 states, including in Seattle at the beautifully restored King Street Station (above). I was a guest on this topic today on KUOW's The Conversation With Ross Reynolds, but time being what it is, much more needs to be said. Some of this may be familiar to Rogue readers, but it can't be stated often enough.
1. Seattle is better served by passenger rail than most American cities. It is the terminus of two long-distance Amtrak trains, the Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder. I've ridden both and they are the best way to see the country. In addition, it is served by the Amtrak Cascades, a regional corridor with multiple trains a day south to Portland and Eugene and north to Vancouver, B.C. You can enjoy a relaxing, spacious ride alongside spectacular scenery, have a meal or adult beverage, and work using onboard wi-fi. Sound Transit operates commuter rail via its Sounder service north and south in the metropolitan area. Finally, Seattle has both light rail and one streetcar line with more to come. Phoenix is by far the largest American city with no passenger rail service at all (although it has — WBIYB — light rail).
2. Passenger rail is the most environmentally friendly way to move large numbers of people, an advantage that matters even more if we're going to reduce greenhouse gases associated with climate change. Cars are terrible polluters, but so are airplanes. Trains also help ease congestion on highways and airline routes, as well as reducing the safety costs associated with cars and freeways. Commuter rail helps ease the horrible traffic of rush hours that impedes productivity, belches pollution and causes costly wrecks.
4. Amtrak keeps setting ridership records, including on its supposed "money losing" long-distance trains. These are essential to a national network, and they are also the lifeblood of many smaller communities. Thus, a train such as the Texas Eagle gets strong support in its otherwise reactionary namesake state. In addition, these trains are a truly wonderful way to travel. If you've never done it, take a train trip.
5. Given all these positives, why does Amtrak struggle for funding every year? It comes down to the reflexive Republican hatred of passenger trains, and the GOP controls the House. I've written more about this anti-rail fetish and its consequences here. Amtrak isn't the only way to go (for my historical look, see here). It's unfortunate that the Congress didn't simply provide subsidies to private railroads for passenger trains, and do so on competitive routes. Successful privatization and public-private models are working in other countries. Even the conservative/austerian Cameron government in Great Britain is embarking on an ambitious expansion of rail service, including building true high-speed rail. But however you do it, passenger service needs a dedicated funding stream that's not hostage to each year's budget battle.
6. So you mean subsidies? Yes. Much more of American economic life is subsidized than most people realize. Deposit insurance is one subsidy for banking. Our military "subsidizes" relatively cheap oil and the 10,000-mile supply chain so we can get cheap clothes made in Bangladesh. No transportation system is unsubsidized. Freeways aren't free and drivers don't pay their way. As the emergency sessions of Congress to fund the FAA — just to avoid flight delays — show some of the many subsidies to the airline industry. Freeways, roads and airplanes also have huge costs as externalities, real but not counted in conventional assessments. Only Amtrak is supposed to pay its way. This mindset keeps us stuck in a dysfunctional 1970s transportation system. A study of the German rail system showed that the subsidies paid actually repaid the nation when such externalities as the pollution and car wrecks avoided were priced in.
7. So should we have high-speed rail? Yes. We spend hours alone in our cars and think we're an advanced nation. In fact, we're way behind. Japan, Germany, France, Spain, the nordic countries and many more provide examples of 21st century transportation systems, of which high-speed rail is an essential part. Building, maintaining and operating them also provide jobs. Americans don't realize this because most of us don't get out in the world. If California ever builds true high-speed rail (going 155-miles-per-hour or more), that may change. Like light rail, once people try it, they love it. But we should also be rebuilding and adding frequency on the conventional rail network. As late as the 1950s, it was the finest in the world.
Happy National Train Day.