Heresy! (Grid and Gateway, part 2)


The city of Pecos recently made the news.

That friendly west Texas municipality, seat of Reeves County and centre for ranching and mineral production, was categorised as number two on Forbes' list of "America's Fastest-Growing Small Towns." Famed for its canteloupes and its role in the development of professional rodeo competition, Pecos is like so many other communities scattered throughout the North American continent: it's too small to be a "real" city but too big to dry up and blow away; too far from everything for most cosmopolitans to take notice but too important to be ignored.

Interestingly, some other cities which made Forbes' list are Wyoming's own Laramie and Gillette, and Williston, North Dakota.

Gillette, primarily known among rails due to the success of Powder River Basin coal, could easily be a stop on a passenger train route even today - and there's no reason why Laramie (UP's Overland Route) and Pecos shouldn't be. Williston, along the former GN, already is (courtesy of the Empire Builder).

Alas, expansion of Amtrak's national network doesn't seem feasible in the current political climate. Even conservative system growth appears beyond the scope of those at the N.R.P.C., the U.S. D.O.T. and its F.R.A., and elsewhere in Washington.

Williston maintains an Amtrak link on its web site and the Chamber is quite up-to-speed regarding trains past and present. Nonetheless, you'll never see mention of increased frequencies or additional routes. It's as if residents consider themselves fortunate to have one daily train operating on one route. The last thing they want to do is jinx it.

Without those in leadership positions actively pushing for more trains to more places, inertia reigns supreme. Pecos townsfolk certainly don't have a clue that passenger train service is a theoretical possibility, much less something to be desired. I know; I've spoken with community officials before.

Yet, the only way Pecos, Texas will ever enjoy any connections to the outside world (apart from those using the town's highways) is if passenger train services are reestablished.

As Lisa St. Aubin de Teran once observed, trains are society's great equaliser (all you need is a ticket!). Even the smallest of hamlets can enjoy city-level service. The same trains that call on Dallas, Phoenix and Los Angeles can also serve Pecos, Abilene and Big Spring.

Most of these places will never have a commercial airport. Currently, the nearest one to Pecos is in Midland: approximately 85 miles to the east and, essentially, inaccessible but by private automobile.

Ah, but UP's former Texas & Pacific main runs right past the Midland International Airport's front gate. Anyone for intermodalism?

There's no reason to ignore downtown Midland, either. Regrettably, no depot buildings remain in Midland or Odessa; but, looking on the bright side, that might make planning even easier!

Sadly, just as in Pecos, Midland officials haven't a clue. In 2007, the city released a study concerning downtown redevelopment: a wishful, well crafted document which primarily serves to indicate how difficult it is to reinvigorate central cities without rail-based transportaiton, yet has nary a word to say about trains.

Midland has even composed a "Master Plan 2025" for the region. There's still not one mention of trains.

To me (what with my personal biases running amok and all), it seems nothing less than ridiculous to not allow for - not even consider the possibility of - passenger train operations of any kind in tomorrow's world. Failure to include even a cursory glance toward railroad operations in official transportation plans carries profound implications which remain difficult to ignore.

Why shouldn't we interconnect various intermediate points with conventional, long distance trains? Surely, one might use such a conveyance running from El Paso to Dallas for a trip between El Paso and Dallas. One might also use it to ride from Pecos to Midland, then board a commercial airliner there to reach Dallas (or Chicago or New York City). The reasonable nature of such an endeavour becomes evident when we remember that trains do not call upon terminal points, alone - and this is the only way Pecos (or Midland, for that matter) might be served.

Part of the problem, of course, is that passenger trains have been out of the public's consciousness for too long (at least a couple of generations) and there has been no one in a position of authority willing or able to pull society's coat. The general population is innocent in this matter. After all, ignorance and stupidity are not synonymous.

I fault our "leaders" for failing to explain how long haul (a.k.a. "national network") railway routes actually exist as a series of interconnected/overlapping corridors, quite similar in many ways to an Interstate freeway. I fault our elected officials for pandering to U.S. citizens, making it easy for them to blindly stroll toward the abyss. I fault professional politicians for spending far more time running for reelection than they do attempting to tackle important issues. I fault transportation bureaucrats for ignoring logical alternatives and pretending the staus quo can be indefinitely maintained. I fault all-of-the-above for attempting to convince people that the consideration of passenger train technology is only reasonable in regions with a high population density - and then only if true high speed services along dedicated infrastructure are established.

Maybe cheap, plentiful, high-quality oil will last for the rest of our (and our children's) lifetimes; maybe it won't. Maybe autocentrism will continue to be a primary driving force in this society; maybe it can't. Maybe the next generation of electric vehicles will enable travelers to continue plying the Interstates at 70-miles-per-hour-plus over long distances with the radio blaring and the air conditioning operating at full blast.

Maybe that's all a smoke dream.

We can't afford to write off the towns and cities of 5 and 10 and 25 thousand people, even though our de facto national policies seem to force us in that direction. Forbes doesn't think that's logical, or supportable by hard, cold facts.

After all these years of ignoring the possibilities and believing the propaganda, it may sound bizarre to suggest that real, live, conventional passenger trains can truly be productive; that a locomotive-hauled consist of coaches, sleeping cars and miscellaneous non-revenue equipment could efficiently provide basic transportation; that such an approach might be the best solution for a number of towns, cities and regions across the North American continent.

But they are.

It may indeed sound like heresy to claim so many learned people were so wrong about so many things for so long.

But they were.

Far be it from me to judge those who were fighting for our railroad's lives at a time when regulation was rampant and financial losses staggering. I'm not saying our industry had a reasonable opportunity to search for solutions when the patient was dying.

The operation of passenger trains can't be justified as a purely business venture. That was true then; it is true now. However, we can justify a serious look at what might be of interest and convenience for the public today - and of necessity tomorrow - when using public funds. Taking cash from the community's coffers makes sense if we soberly review our alternatives and, with determination, properly prepare this world for our children to inhabit.


  • It is ironic that Garl presents his latest plea for a return to the days when passenger trains served just about every cmmunity that was more than a simple dot on a mpa on the very day that House Republicans presented their latest bit of fiction called a budget.  The GOP obviously never had a chance to read Garl's paen and if they had, obviously they would have come up with something more than a wet dream of deep, deep budget cuts mostly in programs for the lesser of our citizenry along with deep tax cuts for the greater of our citizenry.  Sure.  And if you believe that you believe that I'm from the government and I'm hear to help you.

    Garl blames a lot of people and interests for the near total demise of rail passenger service.  I think he's wrong.  Passenger trains lost out when the Interstate Highway System was built.  That made if feasible for families to pile into the family car and travel greater distances than ever before on their own schedule and at affordable cost.  

    At the risk of being repetitious (who me?), I must point out that passenger trains do not and probably never will cover both their variable and fixed costs.  The creation of Amtrak was based on a fraud -- the promise that Amtrak would be profitable within two years.  Forty years later, I ask which two years is that?  Congress chooses not to fund Amtrak properly, properly being defined as providing enough money to acquire the necessary train sets for expanded service and to pay the host railroads companies for the use of their facilities.  When the government is challenged to continue funding Medicaid, teach our young, maintain and expand our existing infrastructure, etc., does anyone reading PR and this blog realistically believe money will be appropriated to expand Amtrak service?  If so, you'll definitely want to buy the bridge I have for sale in Arizona.  The good fathers of Pecos and other towns do not include passenger rail in their grand plans for the next few generations of economic development for the simple reason that they are trying to write realistic development plans and that excludes the fiction that rail will play a role.

    Sorry to be so negative, but some might call it realistic.

  • I wonder if the end of cheap oil will make the Interstate Highway System less crowded, and may bring more riders to passenger rail.  It certainly has helped the freight business make inroads into long haul trucks market share.  What would be the oil/gasoline price that would make passenger rail economically feasible?

  • Ed1949:  Respectfully, I would suggest that you look at more than just the cost of fuel in evaluating rail passenger proposals.  Railroads always have been much more efficient users of fuel than have trucks, yet until recently, it didn't really mean a thing to shippers - or passengers, for that matter.  In freight, rails and trucks both assess fuel surcharges to cover sharply rising fuel prices.  Factors besides fuel that drive traffic to rail include driver shortages, rapidly rising insurance costs for truckers, highway congestion in urban areas that increase trucker costs for which they cannot surcharge.  At the same time, railroads are operating more efficiently than ever before and that allows them to be competitive with trucks over shorter lengths of haul than in the past.  When it comes to passenger, the IRS allows $0.505/per mile for business use of autos.  A 240-mile round-trip would cost about $240 plus tolls, wear and tear on the car and driver.  Can FEC provide the service it talks of and do it for under $240 round trip?  We'll just have to wait and see.

  • Here's a heretical concept I've yet to see given any thought.  What if end of cheap oil makes ALL forms of mechanized transportation much more expensive?  The reality is that passenger rail, unlike freight rail, is not THAT much more efficient than other modes; it is a percentage better, not an order of magnitude better.   Of course, it does have the ability to use alternate forms of energy, like coal or nuclear.  

    Just a thought

  • JohnS>"Here's a heretical concept I've yet to see given any thought. "

    There's an architect named James Kunstler who has written at length on it; worth reading, if sometimes overdone.  A little like Philip Wylie, if that means anything to you.

    (The names of some of his blogs are not safe for work; the sanitized form might be "Clusterfork Nation.")

  • Let's be just a bit careful when discussing transportation of any kind and fuel efficiency.  In passenger rail, what load factor are you using?  A train that is full uses fuel much more efficiently than one that has a lot of empty seats.  We like to talk about unit trains.  One of their virtues is that they move fully loaded and that equates to good fuel efficiency.  If you were so inclined, you could even calculate fuel efficiency for horse-drawn transportation: how many bags of oats equals a ton-mile of transportation service?  Just a thought.

  • Larry, I understand the load factor issue.  What prompted me to write was Garl's comment about trains with sleepers, diners, etc.; this type of equipment doesn't generate very good economy numbers - lots of weight, not many passengers.  Rail's good numbers come from high density cars, like typically are found in commuter service.  But, the same applies to road transport - an economy car with 4 passengers generates pretty high passenger miles per gallon, in the same range as rail (maybe not the same comfort range tho').

    Another interesting, but maybe irrelevant, fact is that a lot of Europe's lower energy use comes from people walking or bicycling, not necessarily from different mechanized modes.  Obviously not a solution to the long distance transport problem, but something to think about.

    anmcaff, no I am not familiar with those writers, but I will look them up.

  • JohnS:  I'm all for thinking, so thanks for the comment.  Your points are well-made.  I remind the dilletantes who visit here that there are many factors that go into the cost of any product or service.  It's never as simple as some seem to think.  Commuter service, which as you point out, has pretty good fuel fficiency, also has other expenses such as split shifts for train crews, public policy that caps fares and total revenue, public policy that does not fully compensate opertors for the discounted passenger fares.

    The cheerleading of Railwayist contributes nothing to intelligent discussion, and the bumbling bombast of "commoncarrier" is both ignorant and uninformed.  As the old charity comercial used to say: A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

  • JohnS>"anmcaff, no I am not familiar with those writers, but I will look them up."

    Wylie didn't write about transportation, unless you count a short burst about the callous lunacy of people driving to watch the tankers that were trying to bring them fuel burning off the coast early in WW II.  He could be one acerbic SOB when he put his mind to it, and Jim Kunstler's style is pretty similar.

    Kunstler writes on what happens if the oil gets scarcer; it does not, IMO, take enough account of improvement in natural gas drilling, but it's still worth reading.

    (He also rails against ugly and stupid buildings, of which there is no shortage.)

  • If the United States is going to rebuild its passenger rail network, it will need to be done incrementally, a corridor at a time.  Look for opportunities in those places where the price of downtown parking is high and the freeway corridors are congested.  This means passenger rail spokes to large metropolitan areas from suburbs and nearby cities.  As theses spokes get added and established, some will be extended over time and create intercity linkages.  None of this will be quick or cheap, but to build support for a new passenger rail service, there needs to be potential for a sizable customer base that will really benefit from the service.  Without a strong customer base, the public (and political) support for the service will not be there.

    As for HSR, the United States has been having trouble getting on track because, outside of the Northeast Corridor, there is no well-developed regional passenger rail network to support it.  The regional shorter-haul passenger services must come first.  (Can anyone think of a HSR system in the world that was not overlaid on an established passeger rail network?)  HSR could work in the Northeast Corridor, but the Midwest, Florida, California, and Texas should build up their commuter and regional networks first, a process that is already taking place.    

  • We are into semantics here.  I can assure you the Sinkansen in Japan is not a network overlaid on an existing commuter network.  It may connect with it, but it is a point-to-point operation that happens to serve a very dense corridor. It is expensive, by comparison to Japan's other rail services, and when I rode the Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka train, most customers appeared to be Japanese business people.  Japanese commuters still are shoved into crowded trains and get to stand until well into the suburbs.

    Edhanscom is correct about having to develop HSR and other passenger rail service incrementally.  If nothing else, the sheer cost will dictate that.