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Getting Back on Tracks

‘Thank 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 bad air.

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 low.

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.

—Jane Holtz Kay

Jane 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 JHoltzKay@aol.com.


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