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My wish list

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Garl B. Latham

Ruminations of a foaming professional.

My wish list

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As we begin the 21st century's second decade and enter destinations unknown (tempus fugit, man!), I though it might be sobering to create a wish list of sorts: a compilation of, say, the top ten things I'd enjoy adding to our society's growing catalogue of concerns.

It's a depressing thought, but this piece could have just as easily been written ten years ago. Worse yet is the realisation that my list may end up being resurrected once again, ten years from now!

We, as a people, are nearing a junction point - one where we'll face an historic choice concerning our approach to domestic transportation (especially that of the passenger kind). We will be standing in the midst of Robert Frost's "yellow wood," wondering which road we should take.

In this case, "the one less traveled by" may be the one ultimately sustainable!

At any rate, we'll need to make a decision. Therefore, my first wish would be for the U.S. federal government to finally develop a comprehensive, national transportation/energy/environmental policy. I believe this is the most important wish of all. Through it, we'd be able to see where we are (and how we came to this point), then decide where we want to go and how we'd like to get there. The patented U.S. "drive or fly" approach was never logical, but it was supportable - at great cost - for more than three score years. We might even be able to go yet another 20...but, eventually, we will have reached our own "future." Then what will we do?!

Without such a policy in place, future-minded decisions will be far more difficult (if not impossible). That's especially true when considering transportation's relationship to our ecological health and the availability of affordable energy. It would be shameful, but I'd much rather us be honest and publicly state that we don't care about the environment and that we're ready to do anything for our next petroleum "fix" than to continue talking a good game, then doing absolutely nothing about it. My second wish would be for us to either take all of this seriously, or completely drop the pretence.

Along those same lines, I wish the feds would stop blindly throwing money at problems! Amtrak, bless it's pointed head, is a prime example of how NOT to operate a governmental bureaucracy. The N.R.P.C., essentially from day one, has received just enough cash to survive, but never enough to really accomplish anything - at least not on a national scale. "You can't get there from here" remains far more than a simple catch phrase, would-be riders are left behind for want of available space, and the company is so rudderless that it just sat back and allowed others to plan its future during the past two years - a time when the phrase "railroad renaissance" wasn't necessarily tinged with irony.

My fourth wish would be for us to more effectively utilise existing assets, such as extant general system trackage, when planning for increased passenger service. Such an approach will require conventional "mixed-use" operations along existing rights-of-way...which, in turn, presumes the full, uncoerced cooperation of the infrastructure owners (remember them?). If ever there was an opportunity for both sides of the table to win, this is it! Our industry will ultimately receive additional capacity at low cost and the public will get an option for traveling that's not only reasonable, safe and affordable, but fun! Increases in traffic congestion and gasoline prices will only serve to enhance the train's appeal.

I would like to see this system improvement be planned from a user's perspective, too. That means political realities wouldn't override the very real requirements of current and future freight operations on the one hand, or the literal needs (not just wants) of the railroad passenger on the other. For example, even if the political will to create a true U.S. high-speed railway network was already present, we'd still need our conventional passenger trains - transit and regional services, moderate-frequency corridors, long haul routes - to supplement and interconnect with H.S.R. I wish some of the otherwise supportive planners, dreamers and political soothsayers could see this!

I also wish we'd take the concept of intermodalism seriously. Surely, it's an impressive word; but, it's one with little meaning in the U.S. outside of the freight world. In fact, for most domestic travelers, the promise of seamless intermodalism has no basis in reality. We're actually living in a weird sort of autocentric multi-modal culture: a "system" (in name only) where one drives his private motor vehicle to an airfield, then leaves it behind - only to rent another automobile at his destination. Even the few train/'plane transfers which are currently available usually involve inconvenient shuttles, multiple connections and self-service baggage handling. There IS a better way!

I think my seventh wish is fairly simple: an absolute national moratorium on all future railroad abandonments! We shouldn't allow any more railway mileage to be lost or compromised. Oklahoma sets a good example (and it's not the only state to do so): if a common carrier wishes to cease operation over a given route, the taxpayer is given an opportunity to purchase those assets for the same amount of money the original company would have received by scrapping the line. The state becomes the proud new owner of that right-of-way and infrastructure - and immediately contracts operations to a private, for-profit concern. What few miles go without a bid are held, intact, for future use.

Next, I wish our elected officials (read: "leaders") would spend the taxpayer's money respectfully, planning and building as if public projects were private-sector endeavours. For instance, as we develop new-start rail transit systems (which are basically an attempt to restore the streetcar and interurban lines we foolishly allowed to die so many years ago), why are concrete crossties being used instead of wood (or some other material)? Why do we always see complex catenary overhead and pantographs on the cars rather than simple contact wire and trolley poles? I presume one reason is because capital for construction is easier to secure than ongoing cash for maintenance and operations. Still, there must be some way to lower the initial investment without sacrificing quality.

Wish number nine? That advocates on all levels remain constantly vigilant, prepared to inform, instruct, and thoughtfully answer critics. Naturally, the citizenry deserves factual information; yet, we can never take for granted they truly understand it. Ohio's scuttled 3C project and its infamous "39 m.p.h. speed" statistic should provide a poignant reminder as to the various ways some people will purposefully distort the truth in order to undermine the public's trust. The United States has gone far too long without a thriving passenger train system for most people to really grasp what they're now missing and what they could be enjoying - for a quite reasonable investment. Regrettably, without adequate public support, what just happened in places like Ohio and Wisconsin could become the norm.

Finally, we should never lose sight of the ultimate goal, nor forget what might happen if we fail. I understand many among us maintain the belief that things will never substantively change; that we'll always be able to exist, comfortably, as part of a "drive or fly" nation. This assumption may be true. It may also be an example of an extreme mental state called "normalcy bias": the idea that, since a given disaster (or, in this case, a potentially disastrous societal change) has never occurred, it will never occur. We have our automobiles, a system of roadways upon which to drive them, and the relatively inexpensive supply of fuel necessary to make them all work. What else could we need?

What else, indeed!

The North American continent could be standing on the brink of greatness. It could also effectively be perched on the verge of collapse.

Truly, the choice is ours.

 

 

 

 

As we begin the 21st century's second decade and enter destinations unknown (tempus fugit, man!), I though it might be sobering to create a wish list of sorts: a compilation of, say, the top ten things I'd enjoy adding to our society's growing catalogue of concerns.

It's a depressing thought, but this piece could have just as easily been written ten years ago. Worse yet is the realisation that my list may end up being resurrected once again, ten years from now!

We, as a people, are nearing a junction point - one where we'll face an historic choice concerning our approach to domestic transportation (especially that of the passenger kind). We will be standing in the midst of Robert Frost's "yellow wood," wondering which road we should take.

In this case, "the one less traveled by" may be the one ultimately sustainable!

At any rate, we'll need to make a decision. Therefore, my first wish would be for the U.S. federal government to finally develop a comprehensive, national transportation/energy/environmental policy. I believe this is the most important wish of all. Through it, we'd be able to see where we are (and how we came to this point), then decide where we want to go and how we'd like to get there. The patented U.S. "drive or fly" approach was never logical, but it was supportable - at great cost - for more than three score years. We might even be able to go yet another 20...but, eventually, we will have reached our own "future." Then what will we do?!

Without such a policy in place, future-minded decisions will be far more difficult (if not impossible). That's especially true when considering transportation's relationship to our ecological health and the availability of affordable energy. It would be shameful, but I'd much rather us be honest and publicly state that we don't care about the environment and that we're ready to do anything for our next petroleum "fix" than to continue talking a good game, then doing absolutely nothing about it. My second wish would be for us to either take all of this seriously, or completely drop the pretence.

Along those same lines, I wish the feds would stop blindly throwing money at problems! Amtrak, bless it's pointed head, is a prime example of how NOT to operate a governmental bureaucracy. The N.R.P.C., essentially from day one, has received just enough cash to survive, but never enough to really accomplish anything - at least not on a national scale. "You can't get there from here" remains far more than a simple catch phrase, would-be riders are left behind for want of available space, and the company is so rudderless that it just sat back and allowed others to plan its future during the past two years - a time when the phrase "railroad renaissance" wasn't necessarily tinged with irony.

My fourth wish would be for us to more effectively utilise existing assets, such as extant general system trackage, when planning for increased passenger service. Such an approach will require conventional "mixed-use" operations along existing rights-of-way...which, in turn, presumes the full, uncoerced cooperation of the infrastructure owners (remember them?). If ever there was an opportunity for both sides of the table to win, this is it! Our industry will ultimately receive additional capacity at low cost and the public will get an option for traveling that's not only reasonable, safe and affordable, but fun! Increases in traffic congestion and gasoline prices will only serve to enhance the train's appeal.

I would like to see this system improvement be planned from a user's perspective, too. That means political realities wouldn't override the very real requirements of current and future freight operations on the one hand, or the literal needs (not just wants) of the railroad passenger on the other. For example, even if the political will to create a true U.S. high-speed railway network was already present, we'd still need our conventional passenger trains - transit and regional services, moderate-frequency corridors, long haul routes - to supplement and interconnect with H.S.R. I wish some of the otherwise supportive planners, dreamers and political soothsayers could see this!

I also wish we'd take the concept of intermodalism seriously. Surely, it's an impressive word; but, it's one with little meaning in the U.S. outside of the freight world. In fact, for most domestic travelers, the promise of seamless intermodalism has no basis in reality. We're actually living in a weird sort of autocentric multi-modal culture: a "system" (in name only) where one drives his private motor vehicle to an airfield, then leaves it behind - only to rent another automobile at his destination. Even the few train/'plane transfers which are currently available usually involve inconvenient shuttles, multiple connections and self-service baggage handling. There IS a better way!

I think my seventh wish is fairly simple: an absolute national moratorium on all future railroad abandonments! We shouldn't allow any more railway mileage to be lost or compromised. Oklahoma sets a good example (and it's not the only state to do so): if a common carrier wishes to cease operation over a given route, the taxpayer is given an opportunity to purchase those assets for the same amount of money the original company would have received by scrapping the line. The state becomes the proud new owner of that right-of-way and infrastructure - and immediately contracts operations to a private, for-profit concern. What few miles go without a bid are held, intact, for future use.

Next, I wish our elected officials (read: "leaders") would spend the taxpayer's money respectfully, planning and building as if public projects were private-sector endeavours. For instance, as we develop new-start rail transit systems (which are basically an attempt to restore the streetcar and interurban lines we foolishly allowed to die so many years ago), why are concrete crossties being used instead of wood (or some other material)? Why do we always see complex catenary overhead and pantographs on the cars rather than simple contact wire and trolley poles? I presume one reason is because capital for construction is easier to secure than ongoing cash for maintenance and operations. Still, there must be some way to lower the initial investment without sacrificing quality.

Wish number nine? That advocates on all levels remain constantly vigilant, prepared to inform, instruct, and thoughtfully answer critics. Naturally, the citizenry deserves factual information; yet, we can never take for granted they truly understand it. Ohio's scuttled 3C project and its infamous "39 m.p.h. speed" statistic should provide a poignant reminder as to the various ways some people will purposefully distort the truth in order to undermine the public's trust. The United States has gone far too long without a thriving passenger train system for most people to really grasp what they're now missing and what they could be enjoying - for a quite reasonable investment. Regrettably, without adequate public support, what just happened in places like Ohio and Wisconsin could become the norm.

Finally, we should never lose sight of the ultimate goal, nor forget what might happen if we fail. I understand many among us maintain the belief that things will never substantively change; that we'll always be able to exist, comfortably, as part of a "drive or fly" nation. This assumption may be true. It may also be an example of an extreme mental state called "normalcy bias": the idea that, since a given disaster (or, in this case, a potentially disastrous societal change) has never occurred, it will never occur. We have our automobiles, a system of roadways upon which to drive them, and the relatively inexpensive supply of fuel necessary to make them all work. What else could we need?

What else, indeed!

The North American continent could be standing on the brink of greatness. It could also effectively be perched on the verge of collapse.

Truly, the choice is ours.

 

  • Garl if not you then who?  A wish is a goal without a plan.  You should make this happen.  You are the type of person America needs in government, not these career politicians running the country nowadays or even worse the second generation politicians.  You'd have my vote.  Garl B Latham for President!

  • Superb!  For the first time in my career, I've come across a piece that reads my own mind. Although I'm certain I could not have articulated the same half as eloquently.

    In my opinion, the key to unlocking public support is through education.  I'm an infrastructure specialist and I use every forum possible to do my part.

    To your wish #8 related to the costs of developing systems. A common misconception in the industry today concerns concrete ties versus wood ties.  You are correct in assuming that average concrete tie life exceeds wood in most (particularly transit and light rail) applications. When concrete ties were first introduced to the U.S. market in the 80s, their unit cost was considerably higher than that of their wood counterparts.  That is no longer the case, particularly when "industry standard" design ties are considered.  Most agencies have elected to develop their own "standard" design concrete ties and have driven the costs of manufacture up considerably!  The irony lies in the fact that the new standard designs are actually far less robust and far more costly than the "industry standard" designs.  These costs extend well beyond the cost of the concrete tie alone and include the type of shoulder, rail pad, clips, and the cost related to their installation.  In reality, the total costs associated with using an "industry standard" concrete tie and using conventional track laying methods makes the concrete tie a more cost effective alternative to any wood tie alternative.

  • Garl, another great job. Apparently, as I have been advised frequently, about the only way we on the outside of the political crowd can alter things is to keep hammering the political types with the same brief, well articulated argument time after time after time. Get your friends & organization of friends (like us!) to repeat this hammering. A political mentor told me, "politicians are not too bright, but they can count." Tighten your wish list, make it bullets, ask everyone you can to sent it out with the same message. A few well documented statistics like " 75 million boomers are turning 65, they control 75% of the disposable income, they like to travel & experience new places and they don't like planes." That is a lot of potential train travelers. The old maxim "keep it simple" applies here and maybe we can make your wishes come true!

    PS: There is also a tie made from recycled plastic shopping bags which I believe BART is using: solves two problems at once.

  • "As former Gov. Wuss (Colorado) said when strategists tied a favored highway expansion to a light rail expansion some years ago, "No one will ride it."  He was wrong, the trains run with standing room only much of the time and if you're a few minutes late, you can't find a parking space.  The point is that it takes any and all methods of selling programs to politicians, particularly the majority who follow dogma and not real solutions to real problems.  One tactic that I urge on one and all is to maintain constant communication with those who can make things happen.  Good lobbyists are worth whatever they are paid.  The only thing better than a good lobbyist is a CEO who's willing to fly across the country and walk the halls of Congress humbly explaining why he's there.

  • oamundsen....

    Good point on the plastic ties.

    Another company called Tie-tek has previously developed their own composite material tie from recyclables as well (it's possible that the Bart ties come from this company). Tests with these ties date back more than 12 years now.  The tie performed remarkably well according to a 10 year study that was completed a few years ago.  Unfortunately the volume of orders on the books today pale in comparision to concrete and wood keeping their prices relatively high.  Wood is still the predominant tie in U.S. sales as the vast majority are used for maintenance replacements on the existing wood-tie network (can't interlace concrete with wood). Concrete tie sales to Class 1s have been climbing steadily every year with volume increments tied closely to capital program budgets.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the "one and all" approach. Too often folks in this industry tend to walk alone...