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Would improved rail service help our nation reduce dependence on foreign oil? My short answer is: "It could, but not the way we're approaching rail now." Those seniors old enough to remember the glory days of fast, frequent passenger trains will have a long wait until we see anything like those days again. Here are some of the hard truths about the future of rail service in the United States:
The basic idea has merit: Trains use less energy per passenger mile than jet airplanes, especially on shorter trips. Even a major switch wouldn't make a huge dent in national oil use or cut total energy consumption. But an improved rail system could cut use of oil substantially: Electrically driven trains can run on no-oil coal and nuclear power.
Sadly, most of Amtrak's current system doesn't help cut either energy or oil use much. Amtrak was conceived, in a political process, as a "nationwide passenger railroad network." As implemented, that resulted in a series of daily or less-than-daily long-haul trains, traveling at less-than-highway (or less than 1948 rail) speeds, each carrying, at best, the equivalent of maybe two 737s full of people.
We hear a lot about the promise of high-speed rail, but high-speed rail isn't practical for long-haul trains. Even if we could cut today's 60-hour transcontinental trips to 30 hours, for example, trains still couldn't compete effectively with six-hour nonstop flights. And the costs of long-distance track improvements and electrification necessary for high-speed service would be prohibitive.
Where Amtrak does do well is in the Northeast corridor. Its frequent and (relatively) high-speed trains between New York and Washington command a significant and growing share of the market.
What these facts tell me is that a rational national rail policy should concentrate on high-speed service in corridors linking major cities fewer than 400 miles apart:
On trips of that length, high-speed rail can compete effectively on door-to-door travel time with airlines and, in many cases, personal cars.
High-speed trains in these corridors can generate enough of a market to help offset the heavy investment required for track improvements, electrification and maintenance - investments that make sense only where they can be spread over thousands of daily travelers, not just hundreds.
High-speed trains could replace many fuel-inefficient short-haul flights and ease the airport and airways congestion crunch.
Even if the United States adopted a more sensible rail policy immediately, however, any real reduction in oil consumption would be many years in the future.
Currently, Amtrak and the various local and regional rail services are using all the serviceable passenger cars they have. Any significant expansion would require many more cars, probably taking a minimum of three to four years to acquire.
The track work and electrification necessary to permit higher speeds would take at least that many years, as would construction of thousands of highway grade separations required for the safety of high-speed lines.
On some possible routes, geography, urban density, or both, would require acquisition and construction of entirely new rights-of-way - a process that would be extremely expensive and take more than a decade. Fortunately, in the Midwest and South, many existing rights-of-way could be adapted to high-speed use within a year or two.
Any high-speed rail program would require massive, long-term public commitment and investment. Given today's weak economy, a large-scale public works program of rail improvements might make both economic and political sense. However, proclaiming, "Yes, but the private sector should do it," is simply a politically expedient way to deep-six the idea.
In sum, a rational national rail program could help ease dependence on foreign oil. But a truly rational program would require a substantial refocusing from the current Amtrak model. Even if we started today, measurable improvements are probably at least five years away. But if we never start, we'll never see those improvements.
This article appeared on page E - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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