Margin notes
I think I can, I think I can

A 19th-century mode of transport may be the answer to our current environmental woes.

A future of diminishing energy and transportation resources is coming fast around the track. Cars and trucks are choking the nation’s highway system and atmosphere, and high-flying jets are draining vast reservoirs of natural resources while damaging the environment in ways we are only now beginning to understand. What to do in a globalized era of compressed time and space, high-speed happy travel, and the uncertain threats offered by global warming?

Never fear, friends of rational mass rapid transit! A revolutionary new transportation method stands by at the station, waiting patiently for its 19th-century comfort and elegance to be rediscovered. I’m not talking about the latest graphite-winged monstrosity to roll out of a Boeing assembly hanger, and you eco-friendly wannabes can park your heavy-metal enriched hybrids next to your compost bins. I’m talking about trains with a capital T and that rhymes with E and that stands for electro-magnetic rail!

Forgive me for going all Music Man, but as we stumble toward sensible energy and transit policies in the 21st century, the sad truth is it will take some degree of cheerleading to get America excited about a transportation method that remains associated with old technology and taming the West. The truth is that modern high-speed rail promises to be the future’s most ecological, sustainable, and cost-efficient mode of transit.

Trips under 500 miles represent about 75 percent of all travel conducted in the United States. At that range high-speed rail becomes eminently competitive with air or car travel. Typically running directly in and out of major urban transportation hubs, rail travelers won’t waste time getting in and out of airports, and they won’t find themselves trapped in an interstate parking lot, burning through fuel and what’s left of their sanity. What’s more important, they simply won’t consume as much energy or leave as large a carbon footprint as their fellow air and auto travelers.

According to Scott Bernstein of Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology, while air travel can consume between 6,000 to 10,000 British Thermal Units (BTUs) per passenger mile (PPM) and cars idle through about 4,000 BTUs PPM, Amtrak travelers use just 2,700 BTUs PPM. And in the future high-speed rail travelers will use just 600 to 1,200 BTUs PPM.

“If you’re really serious about energy independence,” says Bernstein, “and you’re really serious about climate change or the geopolitical conditions related to energy policy, that range should be of intense interest to you.”

Sadly many members of Congress seem most intensely interested in using Amtrak as a political punching bag than the potential launching pad of the transportation choice of the future. Each year when its proportionally paltry federal subsidy is “debated,” Amtrak’s many critics self-righteously demand that the train network stand on its own two feet. Funny one never hears the same Congress members suggest that the U.S.’s deeply subsidized aviation and interstate systems should likewise hit the road. Even a fraction of the same commitment to high-speed rail could get Americans moving on superfast trains again.

Instead while the French break speed records with their high-speed TGV train and the Chinese build an electro-magnetic line that doesn’t even use rail anymore (it levitates at 260 mph), the United States plods along in the caboose of high-speed rail, running a rusting rail system that struggles to move passengers and the switch-locked mindset of Congress. Although 11 others are under discussion, Amtrak’s Acela Boston-to-Washington run represents the nation’s only functioning high-speed corridor. President Bush’s 2009 budget offers a turn for the worse, cutting 40 percent of Amtrak’s budget and borrowing millions from mass transit to pay for highway maintenance.

It’s time for a people-powered transportation revolution. If you’re tired of leaning on your horn in another interstate traffic jam, and if you find the growing hassle associated with air travel not worth the check-in, why not get on the fast train to glory? Call Congress and tell them you want your TGV. Let’s all get on board a rail ride back to the future.

Kevin Clarke is a senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the April 2008 (Volume 73, Number 4; page 46) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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