Trains will never
Leave the gate;
A wiser fate.
With all due respect to President Barack Obama and the $8 billion he’s dishing out to the states for high-speed rail, it’s too late.
Fast trains have been overtaken by gradual events. America has become too populous and too spread out to allow enough rights-of-way to be acquired ever again.
Unlike Europe and Japan, we didn’t develop compact cities and towns. Instead, we sprawled them all over the countryside. OK, there’s plenty of room to run new lines in Nebraska and Idaho, but try Illinois or Georgia. It won’t work.
Still, the principle of getting travelers off planes is sound. Osama bin Laden has seen to that. Air travel has always been plagued with traffic congestion, mercurial fares, skyrocketing fees, baggage loss, bad weather, and mechanical glitches. Now there are unpredictable security lines as well. How many of us relish a plane trip anymore? Automatic check-in has helped, but not enough. What to do?
One alternative to shorter flights is, as I’ve argued before, the bus. Yes, the much maligned bus.
New bus systems have already captured the fancy of transit riders in Cleveland and the San Fernando Valley. Other burgeoning bus hotspots around the world include Beijing, Bogota, Brisbane, and Curitiba. Increasingly, these schemes are staving off additional subways wherever roads are wide enough to provide an exclusive lane.
But it’s not just local ridership that’s growing. Long-distance coach travel is swelling too. “Chinatown buses,” for many years a cheap option for traveling between major Northeast Corridor destinations such as Boston, New York, and Washington, DC, have expanded to 30 cities, reviving the ghost of Greyhound past.
The Interstate Highway System laid the foundation for long-haul bus service during the Eisenhower administration. Most countries didn’t have that kind of historic culture-altering, budget-busting initiative.
Back then, it was called the “Defense” Transportation Act, as was every other boondoggle of the day. It didn’t do much to deter the Soviets but it sure was great for road builders and automakers.
As fate would have it, it could also now be great for buses. We just need a little additional subsidized infrastructure. So let’s think what federal transportation subsidies could do if reallocated.
Since express buses can’t creep into every city, they need a dedicated terminal out on the interstate for picking up, dropping off and transferring passengers to other routes. They also need local transit services in each city to meet the express and scoot its arrivals into town. For the system to really succeed, it requires nifty new vehicles with real rest rooms, TV, internet, snack bar, and an attendant to approximate existing train and plane rides. And unlike trains, we even have American companies that can still manufacture these buses.
Of course such a system would cost money. But the cost would be peanuts compared to new rail lines, expanded airports, or added highway lanes. Amtrak, for example, wants to spend $117 billion over the next 30-years on high-speed rail just on the East Coast.
And the benefits would be huge. Like trains, buses with their more frequent schedules and convenience could attract air travelers away from short air hops and draw drivers out of their cars for the longer hauls.
Nor would these buses have to speed to reach their destinations in a timely fashion. Highway speed limits are high enough. More important are the low fares, convenient schedules, comfort, reliable connections and easy access.
Sure, high-speed trains have advantages, especially over longer routes. But it’s time for our nation to face reality. There’s no money and no lobby for trains and ‘they’re not likely to appear.
Express buses are a far cheaper, better bet for getting large numbers of riders off those short-trip airplanes.
OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.