30.11.15

WHAT CASUAL TRAVELLERS DON'T UNDERSTAND.

Alex Kingsbury of the Boston Globe goes cross-country by train.  Yes, there's a lot of the pop sociology and Euro-envy (and nothing at all about running existing trains faster on existing tracks) and yet there's a fact the casual reader ought be aware of.
As a nation, we think of our rail system as rickety, yet that’s only the passenger system.

Heading into the dining car one night on the Empire Builder, I was serendipitously seated next to Peter Gilbertson, president and CEO of Anacostia Rail Holdings, which operates six railroads in seven states. “This country has the greatest freight rail system ever built, better than any other country in the world,” he told me. “But most people don’t know it.”
Yes, and that's the basis of the Cold Spring Shops Free Rein to 110 campaign.  The freight railroads want good track.  Running intermodal trains at 90 or 100 and passenger trains at 110 or 125 on existing metals is possible, as the British have been demonstrating for years.  And good freight track is a benefit for commuters, a part of the Passenger Rail system that Mr Kingsbury understandably doesn't write about, although the bulk of passengers at Boston South Station, where he boarded, and Chicago Union Station, where he changed trains, are dashing commuters.  (And he didn't get to see North Station in Boston or North Western Station and La Salle Street Station and Randolph Street in Chicago.)
That freight system has moved countless trucks off the road and fueled tremendous economic growth. But congestion on the country’s road network is becoming paralytic — American drivers spend 14.5 million hours sitting in their cars. That’s a powerful argument to move as many of those vehicles as possible off the road, by placing their passengers on rail.
Passengers are thinking people (homo sapiens sapiens, remember?) and in Greater DeKalb, many think about parking charges and a possible two-hour traffic jam and they're on Metra, public policy neglect or not.  But Metra and the other commuter rail authorities do not have reciprocal ticketing privileges with Amtrak nor do the passenger rail authorities think much about how best to change trains in Chicago, or between the Boston commuter trains and Amtrak.
Traveling coast-to-coast on a train is one of the most intimate ways to see the country. You can see faces passing by, drivers behind the wheel on roads that parallel the track, or waiting at crossings as the train rolls through. Moreover, America also makes sense seen from the rails. Cities were build around them, after all, and trains glide easily between and through them as opposed to meandering, congested highways. There’s an undeniable romance to train travel even if the reality never quite delivers.
Yes, as a Trains writer memorably put it, after a short ride on the old Santa Fe Chief, "you can be genuinely curious about the people of West Covina, instead of wishing they would get out of the way."

Now to get Mr Kingsbury on board with frequency, connectivity, inter-authority ticketing, and 110 mph diesel trains on existing track.

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