Back on Tracks
God, men cannot as yet fly, and lay waste the sky as well
as the earth,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. Little did he know
what the future held. Though wary of the locomotive, the bard
of Walden had no idea that flying and driving would not only
lay waste to soil and sky, but also plunder the nation’s pocketbook.
Certainly, his heirs do. With airlines now in the red and
road warriors stuck on jammed and crumbling highways, many
are sounding the anthem for a renaissance in rail. Evidence
of that resurgence is at hand. Amtrak ridership rose four
percent last month while domestic airlines went down 14 percent.
Light rail lines are getting longer. And both light and heavy
rail lines grow from coast to coast.
Passenger rail’s promise is reflected in the success of the
Acela train in the Northeast and high-speed rail initiatives
across the country. Likewise, the streetcar—its lighter, more
urban peer—records mounting numbers on Los Angeles’ greenline,
charts construction advances on Minneapolis’ Hiawatha line,
and accomplishes city-building in Denver and Dallas. New transit-oriented
developments in Sacramento, Calif., Portland, Ore., and other
cities are centering around trolley lines that run through
the heart of shopping, office and residential districts to
counteract the autocentric, sprawl-inducing approach that
decimated postwar urban America.
No city can thrive or even survive without these Great Connectors.
Indeed, no true city has surfaced anywhere in America since
the Auto Age began to dismantle the nation’s streetcars and
urban cores. Rail could reverse that. Rail is the linchpin
that allows for urban proximity. It is the environmental panacea
that sustains our lives and landscapes and promotes walkability,
stopping the spread that destroys 1.2 million acres of farmland
and 60,000 acres of wetland per year. Without civilized rail,
we are stuck in traffic, circling in terminals, and breathing
Unfortunately, the brake is being applied to all this energy.
A report this month by the pro-highway, pro-privatizing Amtrak
Reform Council—a federal study commission—calls for dismantling
the so-called “money-losing” system. That dispersal would
deprive hundreds of cities and hundreds of thousands of passengers
of train service.
The council’s biased rendering was anticipated. But it comes
at a bad time. Despite the fact that Amtrak has affected a
resurgence in rail, a five-year-old federal law dictates that
it has only until next December to make itself solvent or
disband—a state of financial balance demanded of no other
government or transportation agency.
That bottom-line bromide is a misreading of both linguistics
and politics. “Money-losing” is the prefix applied to rail,
struggling to survive on the government’s paltry $520 million
annual appropriation. No such financial epithet applies to
petrol-swilling, road-based forms of mobility—planes, cars,
and trucks—which secure $46 billion dollars yearly from the
federal trough and consume 60 percent of the nearly 20 million
barrels of oil that Americans use every day.
To be sure, creative thinking doesn’t always come easy to
the U.S. rail operator, whose lines have grown weedy with
neglect. Amtrak’s service and promptness are mixed, its coffers
To be sure, too, the lack of tracks to carry more people as
well as goods creates problems. “Amtrak trains are tenants
of freight railroads that probably aren’t compensated nearly
enough for hosting them, and that they have little control
over,” complains William Vantuano, editor of Passenger
Rail, the industry trade publication.
Despite such criticism, Amtrak is not yet dead. Even as the
nation’s passenger rail begins to cut staffers to meet its
fiscal obligations, the trend has turned. “The best-kept secret
is that Amtrak is making money,” said Michael Dukakis, acting
chairman of its board, noting the $l80 million profit on the
Acela line. In fact, even President Bush provided room for
intercity passenger trains in his February budget proposal.
The states, too, have begun to step in where Washington wimps
out. Local governments are mindful of high-speed rail’s swelling
ridership in Chicago and the West Coast, and Acela’s success
in the East, with a new rail spur from Boston to Maine. They
see scrubbed-up terminals across the country and the forthcoming
showpiece in a new Penn Station in New York.
In fact, most of us mere mortals are far ahead of the Washington
mindset. As long waits and fear of flying combine with the
logic of rail, awareness grows. With half the trips from airports
a mere 400 to 500 miles—and a quarter under 200 miles—an easy
rail trip could replace many of the scary air shuttles.
In light of Sept. 11, the time has come to rethink the Third
World status of U.S. trains. In l902, our newly industrialized
nation laid 6,000 miles of track across the continent to link
its citizenry. A century later, we should measure up to those
ancestors—if not Thoreau, then the everyday heroes who hammered
out a united nation.
Holtz Kay, the architecture/planning critic for The
Nation and the author of Asphalt Nation and Lost
Boston, is currently working on Last Chance Landscape.
She wrote this article for the Elm Street Writer’s Group,
a project of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach her at