I will vote for anyone who’ll get our country’s passenger railway system on track.
I am exaggerating only slightly.
However, it’s no exaggeration to say that I am convinced that a modern, national railway system would be our country’s salvation; the solution for our current financial disaster. Any candidate of any party who could guarantee its construction would seriously turn my head.
A high-speed passenger railway system seems like such an obviously good idea for the United States on so many levels for so many reasons that I just don’t understand what there is to debate. It’s like debating whether electricity can or cannot power a lightbulb.
What’s not to love about a modern passenger train system?
My love affair with trains goes back to that July day so long ago when my mother, three younger sisters and I rode a train from Canada to Redding. I now marvel at how my mother managed to get herself, four daughters – ages 5, 5, 4 and 2 – and all our stuff off the train. Well, almost all our stuff. In the rush, I accidentally left behind my miniature china tea set, a gift from my mother for the trip. I can practically see it sitting on the window ledge where I left it on our sleeper car. I’m pretty much over it. Almost.
As an adult, the few times I’ve traveled to Europe I’ve fallen in love with passenger trains all over again. I love the passing scenery. I love not having to fight traffic. I love the little carts with coffee and snacks. I love the dining cars. I love being able to read or talk or doze on a train. I love the civility of train travel. I love the sway and sound of trains. I just love everything about them.
If you’re lucky enough to have traveled to other developed countries, you know what I’m talking about. And aside from all the things I just mentioned that I adore about trains, it’s noteworthy that modern passenger rail transportation is faster, cleaner, more efficient, and, with few rare exceptions, safer than vehicular travel.
So what’s the hold up? Why can’t we have high-speed rail transportation in the United States? Why have other developed countries embraced high-speed rail, but the U.S. has not? Why can’t we have high-speed rail travel throughout the entire U.S., and not just in the urban areas, like Portland or New York?
These are not rhetorical questions.
Our country is so backward when it comes to high-speed rail that it boggles my mind. More frequently lately I hear the updates and debates about a U.S. rail system, and things aren’t looking very promising. I find myself screaming at the radio when such lame objections are raised as: 1. Ridership is low, and 2. Americans don’t use the existing rail systems. Ergo, Americans must not want high-speed rail, right?
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Of course we haven’t embraced the existing U.S. rail systems. Why would we? They suck! Current U.S. passenger rail systems are expensive, unreliable and have too few routes to make travel upon them workable or affordable. Case in point, here in Redding our sole passenger train blows through here in the wee hours of the morning … but it could be hours late … at an aging, locked station that doubles as a homeless hangout.
Give us a passenger railway system with dependable schedules, myriad route options and decent fares and you’d find trains packed with passengers, and automobiles parked in garages, covered in cobwebs.
Why can’t our country’s leaders see this? Surely they’ve traveled to developed nations and ridden trains.
Can’t they see how high-speed rail would boost the economy by providing jobs related to railways’ construction, maintenance and staffing? Don’t they realize that unemployment would drop when people used high-speed rail to travel outside their rural bergs for work, and return them home in time for dinner? Haven’t they figured out how high-speed rail could create employment match-making solutions all over the county?
Take Shasta County, for example, and our double-digit unemployment rate. If our citizens had access to a modern railway system, workers could hop on a train and ride to work in nearby cities with more job opportunities. Likewise, trains could bring workers here from other places, too, to fill the demand of companies that lack a qualified workforce. Plus, with access to that more qualified workforce, companies would have one less excuse to not set up shop here.
A modern passenger railway system would mean we’d have less reliance on cars, which would mean less reliance upon oil, which would mean a happier planet, too. (Maybe fewer wars, too.)
A modern passenger railway system would lure aging drivers (read: baby boomers) off freeways and highways, which would be safer and less stressful for everyone.
Our country’s commitment to a state-of-the-art passenger railway system would mean jobs galore at a time when so many people are barely hanging on financially, especially in places like the north state, where it feels more like a depression than a recession. Recovery? What recovery? Listen to how the word recovery sounds as it echos inside the scores of empty buildings that held former businesses. Say the word recovery in places like the Cypress Square Shopping Center in Redding, where it seems that more than half the spaces are vacant. One day a business is there, the next day it’s not; sometimes gone without so much as a note or forwarding address stuck to the door.
But wait, there’s more. A modern passenger railway system wouldn’t just directly help U.S. citizens, but it would be good for foreign visitors, enticed by the convenience and accessibility of high-speed rail to venture to more places in this great land – places beyond our more sophisticated train-savvy cities.
Indulge me as I veer off track slightly to a side rant for a moment, but bear with me. It’s related. Italy enjoys a fair amount of success with agritourism, where tourists (many Americans, I might add) ride trains that deposit them in beautiful regions, oh, like Tuscany, where tourists then rent tiny cars for scenic drives on rural roads to reach farms and cheese-makers and olive-oil producers and vineyards and the like, sometimes actually staying at those locations, and working. Oh, the wonder. How quaint.
Helllloooo. Our north state is blessed with a Mediterranean climate, too. Consequently, we are also blessed with cheese-makers and wine-makers and vineyards and organic farmers and grass-fed beef ranchers (howdy, Prather Ranch) and apiaries and orchards. The north state could absolutely be an agritourism destination, too, if only foreign visitors could reach us without having to burn rubber up and down I-5 at distances that would equal half-a-dozen European cities.
Sure, we Americans with our dysfunctional car addictions are accustomed to wasting precious gasoline to drive from county to county and state to state to reach our destinations. Why? Because we had to – have to. But that’s outside the comfort zone of travelers from more well-developed countries where high-speed rail transportation is as common as say, universal health care (sorry, I couldn’t help it).
More foreign visitors would mean more money pumped into more communities throughout the U.S., not just the urban, popular cities that already enjoy successful rail transportation.
Granted, I am rather train-biased. So consider that the non-partisan American Public Transportation Association, an organization that advocates for public transit improvement, estimates that for every dollar invested in public transportation, four additional dollars are generated in economic returns. Plus, the APTA recently reported that in major urban areas that have railway transportation, the average passengers saves nearly $10,000 a year by using public transportation and ditching cars.
President Obama has tried to make railway transportation a priority, but he didn’t have much support earlier this year when he called for a six-year high-speed rail plan that would begin with $8 billion, and eventually reach $53-billion. He and his administration believe that a high-speed rail plan would create jobs and boost American competitiveness in the long run. I agree.
Yes, high-speed rail would be expensive, but it won’t cost less later. (Maybe we could pretend we need to fund a war, but build a railway system with the money instead.)
Why oh why oh why is a high-speed passenger railway such a hard sell? Why can’t all our leaders – no matter their parties – see that when it comes to railway transportation, the United States is limping along like a second-rate, Third World country? Come on, it’s embarrassing.
Can you imagine how cool it would be to board a train in Redding and be in San Francisco or Sacramento or Portland for the day? Can you imagine how wonderful it would be to have easier, faster access to loved ones who live in far-flung places?
Our country’s politicians and leaders claim they want to boost the economy and help millions of Americans who’ve lost jobs, homes, retirements, health care and hope. Really? Here’s a suggestion: Forget small-potato stimulus programs, mini-tax breaks and fleeting rebates that have virtually zero tangible financial benefit (at last report, something like a pathetic 1 percent). Those things, though perhaps well-intentioned, haven’t sent so much as a ripple of relief to middle America’s tidal wave of money troubles.
I’m tired of feeling jealous of countries that have high-speed rail. I’m sick of wishing for something that isn’t that out of the question (we can put a man on the moon…).
If I’m going to wish and hope and imagine, I want to wish and hope and imagine a forward-thinking presidential candidate with the brains, bravery and balls to not just stand up and declare a commitment to passenger rail transportation, but someone willing to reach across the aisle and move heaven and dirt to make it happen.
Such a project would set our country on a competitive track toward a 21st-century transportation system. Its creation would produce an unprecedented national works feat that could turn this country around financially at a time when we need it most.
Our country is in dire need. We need something fantastically epic, something drastic, a King-Kong lifesaver of a plan to help our economy. We need something we don’t already have. We need to do something we haven’t already done. The solution is a massive undertaking: the construction of a nationwide, modern high-speed rail system.
It’s a simple train of thought, but so wonderfully loaded with the most spectacular of possibilities: A made-in-America – just for America – high-speed railway project.
And if we could successfully pull it off, the sheer magnitude of it would make The New Deal look like no big deal.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.