Thoughts, Ideas, Comments, and Sustainability
In the ever-evolving world of passenger railroading, there is always room for thoughtful comment, new ideas, revival of great old ideas, and review which can provoke useful thought. See the items below for a world of interesting information.
Capitol Unlimited column by Jim Mathews in Passenger Train Journal Magazine
Honoring the Past, Looking to the Future
Note: Corridor Capital Director of Communications F.K. (Fritz) Plous was surprised and pleased when he picked up the 4th Quarter 2016 issue of Passenger Train Journal and found National Association of Railroad Passengers President Jim Mathews had devoted his regular column, “Capitol Unlimited,” to some observations Mr. Plous had made in an e-mail to correspondents, which had then been passed on to Mr. Mathews.
The subject of remarks by Mr. Plous was the tension between the nostalgia exhibited by the railfan community and the forward-looking, futurist orientation of rail advocates and businesses, such as Corridor Capital, seeking to build modern passenger train networks. Mr. Plous has observed in a number of his communications that an overemphasis on railroading of the past can corrupt the public dialogue by reinforcing the widespread public and political belief that railroading essentially is an obsolete technology unworthy of public funding. Mr. Mathews took this theme and ran with it, contributing valuable and original observations of his own.
Nostalgia can bring us warm memories. Whether the gorgeous Southern Pacific 4449 steam locomotive that pulled the American Freedom Train I remember as a little boy in Phoenix in 1976, or a like-new Stearman biplane climbing lazily into a loop above a rural Virginia farm field, it’s fun and inspiring to relive history and watch these beautiful machines do what they do best. If your heart doesn’t skip a beat a little, you may already be dead.
However, during the U.S. Civil War, the word “nostalgia” was a diagnosis: a crippling, sometimes even fatal homesickness and despair for what was. Coming from the Greek nostos, or return home, and algos, or pain, this was a more or less literal translation. We are all subject to bouts of nostalgia, but at the risk of being excommunicated from the rail advocacy community, let me respectfully suggest that our movement has a nostalgia problem. By all means, we should honor the past and use it to inform our future, but we mustn’t allow our nostalgia to diminish the value of rail in the public mind and create obstacles to investment.
I’m not alone in this assessment. I recently attended a meeting of civic leaders from four states aimed at restoring Amtrak’s Cardinal to a daily service. Mayors, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), state DOT representatives, Amtrak, and other leaders gathered to talk strategy. One of the leaders that was present forcefully made the point that investing in the Cardinal is investing in an economic engine for the communities it serves, and that our message in the Cardinal campaign has to be forward-looking rather than nostalgic. Investing in the future of rail is the best way to honor the past efforts of those who have brought us this far. The room erupted into applause.
Last year, when an amateur photo shoot went fatally wrong on rail right-of-way, Fritz Plous – the communications VP at Corridor Capital and a rail commentator – observed:
“Railfans, with their growing fixation on museums, historic equipment, restoration, preservation, and Santa Claus specials may actually be helping to propagate the public’s impression that railroading is all history and scenery and colorful old characters, a denatured industry with the danger removed and nothing left but the charm.”
Hard words, but his point is well-taken. Plous later went on to describe passenger trains in America as the victims of what he called a “policy crime,” as the Federal government, the auto industry, the highway lobby, oil and gas interests, and a naive media combined to portray passenger trains as “a dead-end technology with no future, no potential, and no prospects for adding value to the travel experience; i.e., obsolete and ripe for replacement” by shiny new airplanes and cars.
We’ve all heard the anecdotes about how planes and cars grew “more popular” during the 20th Century, stripping profitability and ridership from trains. I argue, however, that consigning trains to nostalgic inferiority totally disregards the way that Plous’ “policy crime” got us to where we are. Further, the more we embrace it, the harder we make it to recover. The next time someone regales you with tales of cars’ and planes’ popularity versus rail, remind them of these facts: in 1958 alone, the aviation industry got $700 million tax dollars’ worth of lift. Barge boats got into the act with $561 million for canal projects. Auto-makers and trucking companies got $10.3 billion for the national highway program. For those of you playing along at home, in today’s dollars that’s $87 billion, with a “b,” for highways. In one year. Rail’s share? Easy: zero. Instead, rail companies spent $1 billion on maintenance, $232 million on new construction and paid $180 million in taxes. This was the policy environment passenger rail faced each year for about a half-century, up until Amtrak’s birth in 1971.
In the contest between subsidized and unsubsidized competitors, who wins? The answer should be obvious. Decades of underfunding have created the inaccurate perception that rail is a novelty approaching obsolescence, a quaint curiosity rather than a legitimate policy option for transportation planners trying to cope with the massive congestion and population growth the U.S. faces. Lawmakers will invest in economic opportunity, and mayors will shout to the rafters in favor of spending money to grow their communities and employ their citizens. Spending money on warm memories is a less exciting argument, one made even less compelling when the dollars under discussion began in taxpayers’ pockets.
To break this cycle, we rail advocates need to focus on rail’s relevance, effectiveness and economic benefits to communities rather than reinforcing a damaging and inaccurate stereotype – one which we unwittingly advance when we overly venerate the past. By all means let’s honor the past. But let’s not let nostalgia prevent our voices from being heard as we shape the future of rail travel in our Connected America.
Based in Washington, D.C., Jim Mathews is President and CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
This column by Mr. Mathews appeared in the Fourth Quarter, 2016 Edition of Passenger Train Journal, Issue Number 269. Used by permission of the author and Passenger Train Journal.
Passenger Train Journal, edited by Mike Schafer, was first published in the Spring of 1968. It was a monthly publication from 1979 to 1996, and has been a quarterly publication since 2006; published by White River Productions, Inc. www.passengertrainjournal.com
How Corridor Capital supports sustainability
Whenever travelers shift from air or auto travel to train travel the environment benefits. Trains burn less fuel and emit less greenhouse gas and pollutants than cars or airliners. Transportation economists Anthony Perl and Richard Gilbert report that even internal-combustion-powered trains are about three times more energy-efficient than an auto and two-and-one-half times more fuel-efficient than domestic jet airliners.
But Hi-Levels make a train even more environmentally friendly. By using recycled body shells made of existing stainless steel they eliminate the single most energy-intensive industrial process—steelmaking—from the car-building process. And because building a new car from recycled materials takes only half the time needed to create a car from new materials, Hi-Level trains can start saving energy sooner.
Building a new car from stainless-steel body shells is not a novel technique. VIA Rail Canada has been doing it since 1996. Its retired chief engineer said the company’s 33 stainless-steel coaches purchased from the U.S. and tubed out into state-of-the-art rolling stock were the most rugged, reliable and easy-to-maintain cars in the company’s fleet. He also said that if maintained properly and tubed out again at approximately 25-year intervals they could expect a virtually unlimited service life, concluding, “I fully expect my great-grandchildren to ride in these cars.”