Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day 2011 - Traveling by Rail

P4100021This is one of those instances where I'll just have to let my pre-prepared entries collide with each other.  I'd intended this entry, started during my recent Amtrak trip to Northern California, to appear on Earth Day, which is today.  I'd also planned to do an entry for Good Friday, which is also today.  Since Earth Day is April 22nd every year, and Good Friday changes from year to year, this can safely be chalked up to coincidence.  I'll have the Good Friday entry posted at noon.

You’ll have to click on the picture to really be able to read it, but the text on the cup reads “Rail Consumes Less Energy Than Cars Or Air Travel.”

Yes, I know that there’s irony in the fact that I’m touting this blurb which appears on a plastic cup.  Deal with it.  Enjoy the fact that it’s next to a solar-powered battery charger, if it makes you feel better.

I don't want to hype Amtrak's "green" initiatives too heavily.  Obviously, they have a self-interest in promoting their good attributes while downplaying less attractive ones.  I'll let Amtrak's own link speak for itself, both for the data it provides and for the disclaimer that such self-promotion requires.   I'll limit my focus to the claim made by the cup itself: that rail "consumes less energy" than other forms of travel.  Although precise figures vary, this basic claim seems to be borne out quite readily.  In fact, rail is still responsible for a huge share of America's freight transport, as it is cheaper to transport materials by rail than by other means.  Part of the reason it's cheaper is because of the lower energy consumption that rail requires.

A great many posts celebrating Earth Day will no doubt invite readers to sacrifice on behalf of better environmental stewardship.  This is a good and noble thing.  However, I have long maintained that, if the sacrifice is too one-sided, it will never be undertaken by enough people to make enough of an impact.  We simply must do better about promoting the benefits of taking care of the Earth.

This definitely can be seen with rail travel, as well.  I chose to travel via Amtrak for several reasons:
  1. I didn't want to use my car (which, while drivable, is currently in need of repairs) for a multi-hour trip
  2. It was comparatively inexpensive (and, indeed, since I was traveling alone, it was considerably less expensive than driving would have been)
  3. I didn't think it was worth bothering with the long lines and security protocols that air travel would have required (to say nothing of the expense!)
  4. As I suggested last week, I happen to find rail travel to be an enjoyable experience that allows me to do other things while I travel.
So why are more people not traveling this way?  The answer is simple: rail travel is limited to where tracks are laid, and it simply isn't as flexible as either car or air.  While I was glad to travel by rail on this occasion, I don't think I've ever had so much trouble scheduling my journey to fit the timetable I needed it to fit in.  And the speed wasn't all that great, I have to admit.  My parents (who admittedly flew) left after I did, and still got back to Kentucky well before I got back to Southern California from the Northern part of the state.  The inconvenience factor is, I'm confident, the single greatest factor that keeps people from using Amtrak more than they do.  This has, over the past few decades, created a ripple effect whereby Amtrak has cut down on the number of stations they are able to service with their limited funds, which means that traveling this way becomes even less convenient for more people, which means fewer travelers, and thus even fewer available funds (in fact, Amtrak has been running a deficit for many years now).

There are, I'm convinced, ways around this.  I'm a huge fan of high-speed rail such as is found in Japan and Europe.  Faster commute times equals more trains able to use the existing rails at different times of the day, and thus greater flexibility.  I think it's scandalous that this technology hasn't found wider support here in America.  While there are obviously detractors, this technology not only has a proven effective track-record, but is improving all the time.  I'm also a proponent of light-rail for more local traffic, and eagerly await the day when the promised train to a station mere blocks from my current home finally arrives (it's been delayed by legal action, mostly from an odd combination of a landowner who doesn't live remotely close to here and NIMBY response from folks who actually don't live as close to the would-be station as those of us who support it).

But since these ideas aren't yet widespread, people don't actually know how convenient they can be.  That's true for a lot of good, environmentally-friendly ideas out there.  We need to do a better job of promoting the benefits of such ideas, not just the sacrifice required.

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