Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Recession Silver Lining



Amtrak's daily Coast Starlight travels in both directions from Seattle to Los Angeles, and in the thirty years I've been taking it, the train has never arrived at its scheduled time. However, in the last month, I've hopped onboard the Coast Starlight in Oakland twice to visit family in San Luis Obispo, and on both occasions the train has not only been on time but has arrived at my destination thirty minutes early.



"What's up?" I asked one of the conductors. "Has the world spun off its regular axis?" He replied that the reason the Amtrak schedule has always been screwed up was because Union Pacific freight trains had first priority on all the tracks while Amtrak trains had to sit and wait for the freight to go through, which has always been a ridiculous state of affairs.



"Union Pacific has cut back their traffic by about sixty percent," the conductor said, which is probably an exaggeration (click here for an AP Transportation article and here for a Fort-Worth Star telegram about the company), but the current disastrous economy is definitely having an effect on rail freight which is good news for those who long for a more reliable passenger train network.



So if you've recently been thrown to the curb by your employer, consider a long train trip where you can share lovely meals with Taiwanese stewardesses on a cheap holiday.

7 comments:

C Hutchins said...

Actually, this is slightly alarming. Rail is the greenest way to move goods.

How can the system be changed so passenger rail has priority? Who's in charge?

sfmike said...

Dear Celeste: It's alarming on all kinds of levels, mostly as an indicator of how bad things are economically. As for your last two questions, they are great ones and I don't have the answers. However, I shall investigate.

rootlesscosmo said...

The problem arises because Amtrak doesn't own the right of way, the privately owned freight carriers do. Not only do their freight trains get priority; the track is maintained only to freight standards, which imposes a lower speed limit on passenger trains. (When I was on the Southern Pacific the maximum speed on some stretches was 79 mph for passenger trains.) I think the only real solution is to separate freight from passenger traffic, but that means building dedicated passenger lines--a huge capital investment--and maintaining them to European or Japanese standards. There's something like this in the Boston-DC corridor, and the proposed (yeah, right) SF-LA high-speed project would be on these lines; I advise against interrupting regular breathing while we wait for this to happen.

sfmike said...

Dear rootlesscosmo: Thanks for that informed info. Since the only way we're going to survive in the next couple of years is to nationalize quite a few industries, this might be a good time to change the rules altogether because as you astutely point out "high-speed rail" in California isn't going to occur any time soon. Some incremental improvements in public transport, however, can be made in the meantime.

Matty Boy said...

The beautiful young people. Never out of style.

namastenancy said...

Trust Matty Boy to cut to the most important part of the article! LOL! However, good points on our need to rebuild the rail system, both as a way of providing jobs and a less expensive way of transporting goods. Shall we all close our eyes and click our heels three times to hope that it happens in our life time? Or is it clap your hands if you believe in intelligent government?

rootlesscosmo said...

this might be a good time to change the rules altogether

I think that's what it would take. Amtrak can't make the freight carriers comply with its needs; they unloaded the passenger business because it was unprofitable (it still is, which is why Amtrak survives on subsidies) and would only accommodate passenger service under compulsion, which means both new regulations or laws, and a serious enforcement mechanism. The Obama Administration's approach to the economy so far is Be Kind to Corporations, so I'm not hopeful for passenger rail modernization.