How Train Travel Could Make a Comeback

In all the chatter over $4 gasoline, the Keystone pipeline, dueling House and Senate transportation bills and the president's proposed infrastructure investments, it would be instructive for some politicians, and even a few journalists, to board a long distance train -- not because Amtrak's ridership will soar to new heights this summer (it surely will), but because on a train you hear the zeitgeist of America.

Recently I rode the Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle across the northern Plains and through the oil booms towns of western North Dakota. Amtrak is transportation for the masses and community-based seating rules in the dining car. I lunched with Mennonites, grandmas, public school teachers, gang bangers, a computer programmer, a scientist, golf pro, and a man who just lost a kidney. On trains, people talk to one another because there's time and there something about being adrift on the landscape that puts passengers into a reflective mood.

The fragility of the economy clearly concerned these Americans, but generally they were a hopeful bunch and surprisingly stoic about energy prices. I heard a few shrill diatribes about the conspiracy of the oil companies or the obstructionism of the "greenies," but most conversations were thoughtful and measured. No one believed Newt Gingrich can guarantee $2.50 a gallon gas or that President Obama can solve the situation by opening the spigots of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

These folks have been through gas crises before -- going back to the early '70s -- and they've heard the same bromides from the politicians.

They understand that inertia more than oil addiction is America's real affliction. "How many times does this have to happen? What can we do? I still have to drive."

Their sentiments regarding air travel were just as resigned. No matter how claustrophobic the seating, how intrusive the security, or how much the carriers nickel and dime the passengers, we all have to board airplanes occasionally. Of course, we were riding a train, which naturally led to discussions of rail transportation. Few passengers were rail fans and knew much about the industry or that BNSF Railway owns the tracks beneath our seats, or that Warren Buffet bought the entire railroad a couple of years ago for $34 billion calling it great long term bet for America.

Yet, they could look out the windows, watch dozens of BNSF intermodal freights rushing past and grasp the fuel efficiency of trains loaded with hundreds of double-stacked shipping containers and truck trailers. Railroads enabled the big box stores and their Asian supply chain and in the future, intermodal trains running between American cities could remove tens of thousands of long-haul trucks from the interstates. But we need to build out the capacity of the rail system, which was reduced from 300,000 miles in 1960 to the current 150,000 miles. Amtrak runs a 22,000 mile network but owns just 700 miles, mainly the Northeast Corridor. The freight railroads who "host" passenger trains elsewhere worry that more of those silver trains on their infrastructure will jam up freight traffic and cost them money.

The buildout will require a private-public partnership between the big railroads, the federal government, the states, and Amtrak. Several states including Illinois, North Carolina, Michigan and California are already using matching federal funds for both freight and passenger improvements. Some DOTs are buying their own trains and bringing in Amtrak as the operator. Although there's lots talk about high speed trains what America really could use are more conventional trains running on the shared infrastructure.

Long distance trains, such the Empire Builder, are often criticized as romantic holdovers from another era, but those trains are the connections for a nationwide system. In the 1960s, government didn't build interstate highways through North Dakota and Montana because many people lived there. It was done to connect the more populous regions and extend good transportation to rural areas. Rail is no different. These nuances of transportation policy were superfluous to my fellow passengers. They were just trying to get to a doctor, to grandchildren, to work or home or a few hundred miles down the line because winter driving on the plains can be downright dangerous.

At dusk, we stopped in Williston, North Dakota, the heart of the oil patch where fracking and horizontal drilling of the Bakken Formation has virtually eliminated unemployment. Hundreds of motor homes and trailers squatted on the frozen prairie. Pickup trucks jammed the motels. Roughnecks with too much money and attitude boarded the train and drank heavily in the lounge car. Most hadn't seen girlfriends and wives for weeks. Natural gas being burned off as waste cast an eerie orange glow over the coulees and buttes.

Up close, "Drill baby drill" wasn't so pretty, and from the train, it looked apocalyptic.

That night, I ate a steak dinner with a muscular young army veteran, a month out of the infantry, and headed home to Minnesota from Seattle. He'd done two tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan and was looking for work. I suggested the oil fields, but he had already talked with some of the roughnecks on the train who told of the frigid isolation of the drill rigs and the culture of the "man camps' housing thousands of workers.

"I had enough of that life in the army," he said. Proud of his service but seared by combat he added, "Whatever I do, I just hope the biggest mistakes in my life are behind me."

Everywhere in this land, there is work to be done and people who need the work. I didn't meet anyone who thought it was a dumb idea to invest in water and sewer systems, rehabilitated schools, bridges and roads, electric cars, smart grids, alternative energy and, yes, railroads.

Some rail experts promote Interstate II-- a plan to double and triple track 20,000 to 30,000 miles of existing freight right of way. The tracks would be grade separated -- meaning intersecting roads would run under or over rather than across the tracks. Intermodal freights could run 90 mph, passenger trains up to 125 mph, and heavy coal and grain trains could go their own slow speed. Initially, power would come from diesel locomotives, but eventually the corridors could be electrified, getting juice from greener sources, such as natural gas, wind, solar, and biomass.

As I explained the concept, more than a few of my dinner mates were willing to pay for it -- including through higher gas and user taxes. They aren't obtuse. Transportation is a public good that speeds the delivery of goods and people. Civilization has costs. We all have to pay.

The only question is whether we begin to build now or fritter away more decades of infighting and lack of purpose and argue about who is responsible for $4, maybe even $5 a gallon gas.

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