Thursday, March 26, 2009

Riding the Rails

by Pa Rock

Railroads have played an important role in our nation's history, and with the steady decline in the availability of fossil fuels, they are destined to play a vital role in America's future.

At least President Obama thinks so.

A provision of the recently passed $787 billion economic recovery bill sets aside $8 billion for the construction of high speed rail lines. The current state-of-the-art version of high speed trains is called mag-lev, a process of operating trains via giant electrical magnets that raise (levitate) the train up off of its rail (singular) and then propel it at very high speed with very minimal other energy involved. Several mag-lev trains are in operation around the world, and they are experiencing high degrees of success. In addition to their speed, the mag-lev trains also get points for running silently. Gone are the days of the clickety-clack of the railroad track!

Thirty-five years ago I rode the famous Bullet Train across Japan. At that time it ran at an ear-popping 160 miles per hour. I have also ridden trains in Germany (very nice) and in Russia (very crappy).

Part of the reason that Japan and Germany's rail systems are so much more extensive and efficient than those of the U.S. is that we bombed the smithereens out of their tracks during World War II, and they had to rebuild everything after the war. Many railroad tracks in the United States date back to the Civil War and are obviously in bad repair. Russia and the United States also suffered from their other priorities - military build-ups - and let their infrastructure crumble.

All of the dumber members of Congress like to piss and moan about Amtrak, and threaten to withdraw all government funding. To do that would be a boon to the gas companies who, of course, stuff the pockets of the same politicians with cash.

I have ridden Amtrak out west on three occasions. They are comfortable and a good way to see the country, but they are definitely not fast. The tracks are old and delays are commonplace. Uncle Sam gave land to the railroad companies during the 19th century in order to get them to bind the nation with railroad tracks. Consequently most of today's rail lines are owned by the railroad companies. These companies make their profits off of freight, and they charge Amtrak to use the lines. Every time Amtrak shows a profit, their rents are raised - and then the blowhards in Congress start whining to shut down this service because it can't turn a profit. It's a vicious cycle and a very dishonest one. Our government does help to fund Amtrak, but our government also helped to fund the old railroad companies by giving them land. Now the old companies use that advantage to reap Amtrak's profits.

Gas will be back up to five dollars a gallon in a few months. When that happens, there will be a very serious push for alternative transportation - just as there was last year. (If you don't believe America's driving habits changed during the last gas price spike, you had your car parked like so many others and were not out in it! There were no RV's, few trucks, and a lot fewer cars on America's major interstate highways.)

The days of the greedy oil and gas companies leading us around by our noses are numbered. High speed trains are coming, and they are the way of the future.

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