I like trains

I grew up in California, bought my first car at 18, an ’86 Honda civic, and drove everyday until I moved to DC in the fall of 2008. Since, I have signed my car over to a family member and become a public transportation devotee, using the metro and buses almost exclusively (I rent a car from time to time).

Because of this mix of experiences I have a pretty good grasp of the benefits and difficulties of moving our transportation system into the future. I believe the smartest way to move forward is to invest in public transportation and integrate high-speed and light rail together with the understanding that cars will never completely go away and should be fueled by a combination of biofuels and electricity. Air travel will continue to play a role as well because over great distances, between continents and from coast to coast, it is still the best way to go.

I’m thinking about this today because as usual Slate has published an article on something I had been thinking about. Jeremy Stahl’s piece entitled “My Train Fantasy” brings up excellent points I’ve been arguing about with my liberal friends for years. Primarily, high-speed rail won’t work everywhere and proposing to build routes that no one will use means it will die a slow and painful death.

California’s plans are the perfect example. It calls for the first track to be laid from Fresno to Bakersfield. Now I’ve lived in Fresno and with all due respect to both cities, no one lives there by choice, let alone wants to travel between the cities. It is a ridiculous idea that is driven by politics, not passengers. Backers contend it is only part of the state-wide system that will eventually connect San Francisco to Los Angeles, but if the line isn’t carrying passengers from Day 1, and people don’t understand where their tax dollars are going, the system will fall fail before its ever completed. Why not start with San Francisco to Sacramento? Why not start with Los Angeles to San Diego? Both routes at least have stand alone merit and can show that ridership does exist and that the lines can be profitable.

The biggest threat to high-speed rail however, and public transportation in general, is the lack of focus on regional transportation. We are doing it backwards. Before we connect cities we should make light rail and public transportation work within urban areas and their surrounding suburbs first. This is where people spend the vast majority of their time and where their frustration with transportation emanates. Doesn’t make much sense to me to connect urban areas with fantastic rail systems that can only be accessed on both ends by car. 

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