Lessons from the Wreckage

All Aboard

On the day that an Amtrak train jumped the rails last week in Philadelphia, leaving eight people dead, some 90 Americans died in car crashes you didn’t hear about. Ninety more died the next day, and the day after that. None of them made the news.

I hadn’t planned to write about trains again so soon (see my May 4 entry: It Takes A Train to Cry), but recent events have called attention to the train wreck of American transportation policy.

The Amtrak crash in Philadelphia coincided with an article in the Bangor Daily News about the latest effort to bring passenger rail service – eventually – back to Bangor. As I wrote two weeks ago, trains suffer the double stigma of being overly subsidized and unpopular. Neither is true. People love trains. Amtrak’s ridership is up, and would be even higher if taking the train were more convenient. But decades of policies preferential to cars have led to sparse, unreliable train service. As Jane Holtz Kay wrote in her seminal 1997 book Asphalt Nation, American car owners who would rather drive than take a train are “responding to a rigged market.”

But passenger rail is a tough sell in rural states like Maine. Nobody calls the lonely stretch of Interstate 95 from Old Town to Houlton a waste of tax dollars. Many car owners mistakenly believe that they pay for the roads through excise and gas taxes. But in fact, half of all road funding comes from general taxes. That means that train passengers (not to mention walkers, bicyclists, and bus riders) subsidize every car and driver on the road. You’re welcome.

Even some supporters of public transportation have expressed skepticism about passenger train service to Bangor. They correctly point out the need for smaller, cheaper, more immediate improvements, such as linking the Community Connector bus service to the Concord Coach, and providing better bus service to the airport. Extended evening hours, as I have noted, should also be a priority.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t – or shouldn’t – discuss long-term goals. Passenger rail is not going to return to Bangor next month, or even in the next few years. The important thing is that we’re talking about it, in the context of a larger discussion.

Jane Holtz Kay’s book is subtitled “How the Automobile Took Over America, and How We Can Take It Back.” I like the positive spirit behind that. Kay does not say it will be easy. A powerful coalition of business and real estate and oil and industry interests has foisted upon us the idea that owning a car should be necessary and central to our lives. I was well into middle age before I realized that it doesn’t have to be that way.

I think we take America back one former car-owner at a time. Ride the train or the bus, even if it’s inconvenient. Allow time to bike or walk to work. The discussion of passenger rail service to Bangor is worth having if only to nudge this mindset along a little closer to a public groundswell. Public transportation will improve if enough people want it to.

A few days after the Philadelphia train crash, friends began sending me links to a New Yorker article titled “The Plot Against Trains,” by Adam Gopnik. His main points are hard to dispute: the American political system is rigged for rural interests over urban ones, and a political class in this country has developed an obsession with the idea that nothing good can come from a vigorous central government – the same government that put twelve men on the moon with 1960s technology.

Though this is not a politically partisan blog, I cringe every time some politician praises some rural area as “the real America.” It’s usually someone opposed to government spending on frivolous things like trains. Cars get a free pass because the much higher subsidies for them are camouflaged. And people in rural areas use cars.

A fascinating graphic accompanying a 2011 National Geographic article (The City Solution, December 2011) shows that a city typically – but not always – emits less greenhouse gas per capita than the overall average of its country. The carbon footprint of a New Yorker is much smaller than that of an average American. “Public transit and density put Madrid, Seoul and Brussels below their national averages,” the caption states. “But Stuttgart’s auto industry makes it a higher emitter.”

Thus, not only do city taxes pay for rural roads and car use, city dwellers are also acting as more responsible stewards of the planet.

I’ve lived in small towns (Blue Hill, Maine; Julian, California) and large cities (Philadelphia, San Diego). Now I live in a city that feels more like a small town, only with public transportation. Some day I’d like to come home by train.

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