Posts Tagged mass transit

Backtracking

CDOT MULet me tell you a little about railfans. These people–who spend most of their spare time photographing, riding, and talking about trains–are a highly sentimental lot.

Growing up obsessed with all things vehicular, I quickly learned that not all trains are created equal. The old, obsolete, and rare are always more interesting to fans.

This makes a lot of sense: older fans are nostalgic about the trains of their youth, and everyone is nostalgic for a time when railroading was more romantic.

Just like classic car enthusiasts who love 1950s Chevys and Buicks, railfans love the streamlined E-Unit and F-Unit locomotives GM was producing around the same time. Their shape is easily as recognizable as a tail-finned Bel Air; it even adorns railroad station signs in the New York metropolitan area.

Rarity is also a factor. It’s just too easy to take a piece of railroad equipment for granted when it’s common, but as older things are retired, they become more of a catch.

Which brings me to the Metro North Railroad electric-mulitple unit (EMU) cars I found humming away in the caverns of Grand Central last week during rush hour.

These older cars are quickly being replaced with new M7 and M8 models, but will anyone miss them when they’re gone?

Metro North Railroad MUThese cars never generated much enthusiasm among railfans when they were new, nor do they have much historical importance.

Younger generations also aren’t as prone to sentimentality when it comes to vintage machinery as their predecessors.

Still, they’re becoming increasingly hard to find on the commuter runs into and out of New York City. Will that rarity make them more attractive?

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The Lonely States of America?

People on the T“The great American disease is loneliness,” Kurt Vonnegut once said in an interview. He was right, as he was about most things, and that loneliness seems to be facilitated by technology.

When Vonnegut was raising his family in postwar America, television was seen as an engine of antisocial behavior. Now, we have something much better: Facebook. In an article for the Atlantic called “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” Stephen Marche argues that social media facilitate an innate desire people have to keep each other at a distance.

Marche correlates an increase in loneliness (measured by such things as the UCLA Loneliness Scale) and the rise of social media. However, he does not blame social media for American loneliness.

“Loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us,” Marche said. “We are doing it to ourselves.”

People are, after all, annoying, and Marche acknowledges this. He says Facebook and other social media apparatus could be used to bring people together, but people instead use them to sanitize all their social interactions and, ultimately, avoid all the unpleasantness of real time, face-to-face communication.

If Marche is right, then American society is about to get a whole lot lonelier.

In “The Cheapest Generation,” a more recent article in the Atlantic, Derek Thompson and Jordan Weissmann argue that “Millenials” are ditching automobile and home ownership for sharing schemes like Zipcar and Airbnb. They say Millenials will push America toward a more communal economy, focused on “urban light” neighborhoods instead of traditional suburbs.

That sounds pretty appealing, but I don’t think the America my generation builds will be an urban hipster version of a hippie commune. It might be even lonelier than it is today.

Car sharing programs like Zipcar give members most of the convenience of car ownership without the soul-crushing costs and perpetual need for parking spaces. Members can pick up a car from designated stations on short notice, drive it as much as they want (they get charged by the minute or hour) and drop it off when they’re done.Zipcar at Clark University

It’s a great solution for people who live in urban areas, but it also reduces the driving experience to its essence: privacy. Unless a Zipcar driver is going somewhere with no mass transit, why not take the train? It would be cheaper, and give one more free time.

Car owners need privacy because they’re going places no one else is going; they need flexibility. But if the future really is in car sharing, would anyone take the subway if they knew they could just as easily ride alone?

The “Millenial” generation might easily choose the latter. We’ve grown up accustomed to texting instead of talking, and thinking that social movements can be organized solely through social media. We control the amount of our reactions with other people in a way no previous generation has.

Thompson and Weissmann believe personal property is a concept this generation is not accustomed to. In the same vein, spontaneous everyday interactions could be something that we avoid, and don’t want to experience just because they represent a current social norm.

If people are so quick to trade the uncertainty of phone calls for Facbeook statuses, and the tedium of waiting in line for self-checkout, will they be able to resist hopping in a car instead of riding with the crowd? Or will urban transportation become one more people-free aspect of our society?

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Wisconsin Talgo a no-go

Wisconsin Talgo train. Photo by Angela Peterson.

Wisconsin Talgo train. Photo by Angela Peterson.

Sorry for the week of no posts; even lazy bloggers need a vacation sometimes.

A couple of weeks ago, I ranted about mass transit and mentioned Wisconsin’s high speed Talgo trains. Two trains were about to enter testing, so it seemed like Wisconsin had the right idea. Apparently, they don’t.

Wisconsin’s two Talgos will still be tested, but then the 14-car trains will probably be put into storage. According to Trains magazine, the state reneged on a 20-year maintenance contract for the trains, which involved the construction of a maintenance facility and employing Talgo workers to repair the sets. The state doesn’t want to spend the money, so those workers will be laid off and passengers will continue riding 25-year-old coaches on the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor.

Before the 2010 elections, Democratic governor Jim Doyle secured $810 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding to upgrade tracks and build new trains. When Republican Scott Walker took over, he decided that improved rail service and potential jobs at Talgo’s Milwaukee facility were not worth the cost. He returned the federal money, and his administration says the state is saving $10 million by not running the trains.

I’m not an economist, or a governor, but this still doesn’t make sense. Republicans hate to see the government spend money, but what are they saving it for? The economy is supposed to be the nation’s primary political concern, yet Talgo is laying off workers because the Wisconsin GOP will not follow through on a predetermined contract. The state may be saving $10 million, but it has already wasted $70 million on two trains that will do nothing but gather dust.

The Talgo project should have been a no-brainer. The trains, which can tilt to take corners at high speeds, have proven popular on Amtrak’s Cascades route in the Pacific Northwest, and Talgo went to great lengths to bring them into compliance with current Federal Railroad Administration crash standards. Wisconsin needed new trains, and Talgo need customers. What went wrong?

Republicans like to think that completely eliminating government spending will solve America’s problems, but Walker’s actions show that frivolous spending cuts can actually make things worse. Who benefits from Wisconsin’s reneging? Is it the people stuck on worn-out trains, or the people without jobs?

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Mass transit: Profits and public good

CDOT MUAmerica’s interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and its dependence on foreign oil, is so apparent that it requires no witty opening sentence. Most attention is concentrated on transportation; a mixture of hybrid and fully-electric vehicles are supposed to solve the problem eventually. Developing new technologies is a good idea, but I am also an advocate of expanding mass transit. The only problem is money.

Everything costs something, but people need to get over that. Restoring an old railroad right of way for commuter service, or building a new light rail system in an urban center costs millions of dollars per project, plus millions more in yearly operating costs. Naysayers like to point out that affordable mass transit will have a hard time recouping these costs, which makes it economically dubious.

The idea that a transportation system should pay for all of its infrastructure, and be financially lucrative, to be successful seems peculiar to rails. Bus companies do not own the highways their vehicles travel on, and do not pay for their maintenance. The same is true of airlines and their massive, publicly-funded airports.

Historically, anything involving rails has been the exception to this rule. First, private railroad companies built tracks and ran passenger trains, with only fares as compensation. When the private companies had had enough of losing money, they turned their passenger operations over to Amtrak and various regional commuter agencies, like New York’s MTA and Boston’s MBTA. From then on, the government footed the bill.

The same is true of urban transportation systems, like streetcars and subways. New York’s subway system was built by three private companies, who ran the trains and maintained the tracks. When these companies went bust, the MTA took over operations.

Government agencies have been able to maintain acceptable levels of service, but expansion has been an uphill battle because of the money issue. It’s not just a lack of funds, it is an irrational unwillingness to support mass transit just because individual services cannot break even. Here’s an example: during the Bush Administration, the Republican-controlled Congress refused to approve Amtrak’s budget because the government-owned passenger train operator was not turning a profit.

The frank truth is that mass transit is not a money-making proposition. That’s why private companies abandoned their passenger-carrying operations decades ago, and why we don’t have a national airline or bus operator. It is important to remember that the government does not exist to make profits, it exists to serve the people. Yes, investing in mass transit will probably result in a loss, but there are other things to gain besides money.

Losing money sucks, but sometimes the public good is more important. Expanded rail services could reduce emissions and oil consumption by getting people out of their cars, not to mention alleviating traffic. Even if ticket sales don’t cover the costs of a given service, that seems like a worthwhile benefit.

Some people understand that. In Michigan and Illinois, upgrades to existing rail lines will increase intercity trains speeds and reduce travel times. In Wisconsin, the state is testing high speed Talgo trains for a new service linking major cities. It’s time for the rest of the country to get on board (no pun intended).

Mass transit services should try to recoup as much of the public’s investment as possible, but they should not be abandoned if they lose money. Commuter trains and light rail will probably never be profitable, but they will always be a benefit to the public. We may live in a capitalist society, but money is not the only thing that matters.

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