...it's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there...

January 27, 2005

No More Trains?

When i first heard about the Glendale Metrolink disaster, yesterday morning while getting ready for school, my first reaction was typically post 9/11. i turned on the tv, saw the helicopter footage of the scattered train cars, then the announcer said, "President Bush will speak to the nation in a few moments." Shit, i thought, another Madrid?! i had jumped to an unnecessary conclusion, thanks to the strange juxtaposition of news stories at the moment i turned on the tv. But it got me thinking how vulnerable our rail system is to sabotage.

The L.A. Daily News headline asks a question that we all know the answer to: "Could any safety procedures have prevented this tragedy?" The short answer is no. The long answer is yes, but making train travel completely safe would make it so expensive that passenger rail could not exist.

Engineers, lawmakers and others engaged the issues of rail safety and security on Wednesday as Southern California reacted to the tragedy.

Some said the main factor is the lack of grade separation -- allowing the trains to operate at street level -- with only small barriers to deter motorists from getting caught on the tracks.

'If you look at our train systems out here, there are many more accidents and deaths here than elsewhere,' Moore said. 'It's 50 to 100 times higher than the national average, just from people attempting to commit suicide. And one of the reasons for that is the tracks are very accessible.

'If they had put through grade separation, they would never have been able to afford the system. If grade separation had been required, there would have been no Metrolink. And, now, maybe there shouldn't be.'

Metrolink officials have said grade crossings cost $20 million to $50 million each -- while the agency has an annual operating budget of $110 million.

i have long been an advocate for European style passenger rail in this country, but now i'm rethinking my support. i used to ride BART every day, when i lived in SF. A high speed connection between Southern and Northern California, like Spain's AVE line between Madrid and Seville would be so convenient, but i don't know if i could ever feel safe riding it. What a coincidence that on the same day as the Metrolink disaster, the California High-Speed Rail Authority approved a 700 mile route for high speed passenger rail service through California's San Joaquin Valley. It's such a great idea, but maybe post 9/11, it's an idea whose time has passed.

Posted by annika, Jan. 27, 2005 |
Rubric: annikapunditry


I loved travelling by train in Europe, too, and I do think there's a place for it in heavily-traveled areas of the US. Amtrak has been a disaster for passenger rail in this country, as have, to a lesser extent, most of the local commuter rail systems in places that have them: what's needed is privatization and competition.

That much said, whenever I hear "high-speed rail," it brings out the cynic in me now: it's yet another costly policy boondoggle in the far-too-easily-amended Florida Constitution, alongside mandatory maximum public-school class sizes, toys and space for pregnant pigs, etc., etc., ad nauseaum.

Posted by: Dave J on Jan. 27, 2005

& exactly who will pay for this mass transit system that I won't ever use?

The problem with rail in the u.s. is there's just not a viable market for it over long distances. There could be if the gov stepped the hell back & let the market do its thing - but America is not europe. We're more spread out & we have different cultural attitudes towards travel.

Rail works fine in densely populated areas surrounded by more densely populated areas. It doesn't seem to work as well over big gaps in populated areas. Taking a train from say madrid to seville is one thing. Taking a train from denver to L.A. is another.

& since your boy Arnold has been so on the job bannin bolt action rifles to prevent any sort of disaster, think he'll ban SUV's? After all they've caused more deaths in a single day than a whole group of rifles have ever caused (through criminal misuse that is).

Anyway, it's not because of the attacks of september the 11th that rail may not be viable - it's because the government is really all wet on most of its rail proposals. The market could pull it off perhaps, but the gov will just make a theft-subsidized mess of things.

Did I mention its not to late to leave Cali? :)

Posted by: Publicola on Jan. 27, 2005

"Taking a train from say madrid to seville is one thing. Taking a train from denver to L.A. is another."

Let me make it clear that I agree with that completely. The one place in the US where passenger rail currently actually turns an operating profit is along the Northeast corridor from DC up to Boston, which, of course, Amtrak and Congress then use to susbsidize routes elsewhere that should be allowed to wither and die. But private rail systems in other densely medium-length transit markets could probably fill a niche where a lot of people would rather not drive that long, nor pay as much to fly. Of course, Amtrak is currently MORE expensive than flying quite frequently, which makes it completely useless, but multiple private passenger operations would change that. And rather than obsessively build high-speed lines, they could certainly at least start with the preexisting infrastructure to keep their costs down, either by "renting" the tracks from the freight railroads or being operating divisions of those railroads themselves. After all, unlike passengers, a sizeable percentage of the country's long-distance cargo still does move by rail.

Posted by: Dave J on Jan. 28, 2005

As DaveJ points out, rail freight is very important, much more so than passenger rail. I think it's correct that the US makes significantly more use of rail for freight than does Europe (although water transportation in Europe does carry some of the goods that would move by rail in the US.) Those who talk about Europe's "superior" railroads tend to neglect this factor.

Posted by: David Foster on Jan. 28, 2005

There's a reason why there is no private rail mass transit in the US. You do the math. Anything that will drive perfidious govvie tit-suckers from the field works for me.

Posted by: Casca on Jan. 29, 2005