Clickety-Clack, Getting Trains Back on Track

Every great journey begins with a single step. On April 16, 2009, President Obama helped the nation take a step in the right direction when he outlined his dreams of developing high-speed passenger rail lines in at least ten different regions. Mr. Obama espoused his belief that train travel was a solution to America’s congested transportation arteries and a journey toward our responsibility to take the lead in the global community. In order to understand the significance of the issue, we must define the problem with the status quo and then strive to understand the reasoning behind Obama’s proposed solution.

Obama believes that America is suffering from congestion in the forms of highway and air traffic. The goal of his new plan was to create “a smart transportation system equal to the needs of the 21st Century … a system that reduces travel times and increases mobility, a system that reduces congestion and boosts productivity, a system that reduces destructive emissions and creates jobs.” Such lofty goals often bring with them heavy burdens and a need to temper our greatest hopes with prudence.

According to Brian Knowlton of the New York Times, President Obama allocated $8 billion for high-speed rail in his stimulus package to be spent over a period of two years, and an additional $1 billion every year for five more years. Such a sum is a small percentage of America’s seasonally adjusted real GDP, which was $14.5 trillion in 2009. In order to understand the impact of such an investment, we need to find a benchmark, such as the present ridership of America’s rail infrastructure today. Currently, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, known to most as Amtrak, is a United States government-owned corporation that provides passenger rail service. Amtrak provided service to 28.7 million passengers in 2008, setting a record for annual ridership. While 28.7 million is a small number of citizens served, an expanded, more accessible and faster rail structure will surely increase the number of riders. Also, it would be hard to measure the value of a decreased negative impact on our environment, and the increase in economic productivity as a result of faster transportation, but we can assume that they will both be positive. Considering the potential windfall rewards, $13 billion is a relatively small investment, but there are still other concerns that should be addressed.

CBS’s John Blackstone suggests that getting Americans to ride the trains the government has built for them will be a problem in itself. Immersed in a typically American “entrenched car culture,” it is almost perfunctory to start one of our several cars and drive to where we need to go. In fact, the automobile has become a quintessential hallmark of being a successful American since Henry Ford’s introduction of the Model T to the masses in 1908. According to Luke Metcalfe’s data gathering from the CIA Factbook and various international agencies, America has the highest number of vehicles per capita at 765 per 1,000 people. The next highest is Luxembourg at 686 per 1,000. With the spread of urban sprawl thanks to low-density residential areas, destinations are further apart. Immediately, many regions seem unfeasible and are struck from potential candidacy.

So it makes sense that most of the stimulus funds are targeted at densely populated areas on the East Coast where public transportation is already popular. The key is targeting the correct market, and it seems the Obama administration has done a commendable job of that. Some may argue that train travel is an anachronism, an archaic mode of transportation from a time long forgotten. Yet capitalist consumer America loves incentives, and it is these payoffs that entice consumers to act in ways that stray from their once-set patterns.

In a June 2008 New York Times article, Matthew Wald explored how travelers sought trains as an alternative to the increased cost of driving and flying due to record prices for gasoline and jet fuel. In typically low-ridership months, Amtrak found itself pushed to the brink of its passenger carrying capacity with little to no means of expansion to meet the overflowing demand. So, we know that people will naturally deviate towards the less economically straining mode of transportation, so long as the cost of alternatives are significant enough to cause a shift in conduct. Although it is true that America is shadowed by a “drive there” lifestyle, there are still sites of interest for which high-speed rail can deliver benefits.

High-speed rail (HSR) systems are much more beneficial to the environment than other popular modes of transportation. Also, the U.S. Department of Energy calculates that “a typical track would carry 13 percent more people than a six-lane highway while only requiring 40 percent of the land.” It almost sounds too good to be true.

Faster, cheaper and cleaner. Welcome to a more efficient America.

Andrew is a fourth-year business economics major. He can be reached at andrewcw@uci.edu.