Saturday, August 16, 2008

Retraining America

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

Via the passenger rail blog I discovered a fantastic documentary titled Retraining America (scroll to the bottom of the page; film is a 34 min Quicktime file) made by students at Guilford College in North Carolina. It's a good overview of the state of passenger rail in America, including the history of rail in the 20th century, the rise of freeways, and the starvation diet trains have faced.

Matt Melzer, of NARP and a frequent contributor to this site, is featured and as usual he makes some solid arguments about trains in America. He makes the point that America has been "socially engineered" to the point that cars are the only viable form of transportation for most people, leaving them without the freedom to choose another way to travel. Of course, this also leaves them vulnerable to crippling increases in the price of gas, which in turn damages the economy, as we're witnessing right now.

The problem we face today is that a transportation system that worked for a while, from around 1960 to 2000, is no longer working. The end of cheap oil and the massive congestion of airports and freeways both indicate the desperate need to give Americans more choices and to guarantee prosperity through a revival of rail. Freeways in particular were the product of a massive federal subsidization effort; roads don't pay for themselves and never have.

What the HSR deniers are asking California to do is shackle itself to this failing model. They believe, against all available evidence, that the post-1960 model of freeways and flights is still sufficient for our travel and economic needs. The increasing rail ridership belies their arguments, as does the move of California industries like Salinas Valley agriculture to revive rail freight.

Partly for those reasons, alongside the environmental and climate benefits of HSR, I argue that high speed rail is the most important project California has considered in the last 50 years. Just as the bay bridges and the State Water Project were necessary for a prosperous 20th century California, so too is HSR necessary for a prosperous 21st century California.

PS: I have added a link at the right to the ActBlue page for the official Prop 1 campaign. Help make high speed rail a reality in California by kicking in a few bucks to the campaign.


Rafael said...

The "Re-training America" documentary was a little hard to watch because so many of the interviews were marred by background or wind noise plus elevator music.

However, it do show how ordinary Americans understand full well that when it comes to trains, you get only what you're willing to pay for. They also understand that passenger trains are at least in part a public service. It's just that many aren't (yet) willing to take on more public debt or accept a tax hike to revive this mode of transportation.

Short of real gasoline supply shortages - something I hope will not happen - passenger railroad service will continue to focus on specific corridors. It may be politically attractive to talk about a national initiative, but that would be a poor investment.

For example, as this blog has argued for months, true high speed rail (>186mph top speed) service makes eminent sense between Southern and Northern California.

Between e.g. Sacramento and Portland, perhaps not so much. In this and most other corridors, the focus there needs to be on growing freight capacity and getting passenger trains to run on time on the same tracks. Speed means nothing without punctuality. There also have to be affordable, timed connections at either endpoint of any given journey. In practice, that will usually mean fixed-route regional buses or, local sharecabs. In summer at least, electric bicycle rentals could also be an option.

The renewed interest in all types of passenger rail is certainly very welcome. However, only a more comprehensive approach to public transportation, tailored to the needs of each corridor, has any chance of getting significant numbers of people out of their beloved cars and planes.

That implies a national public ground transportation policy designed to ensure every Congressman can direct federal dollars to appropriate projects in his or her district - whether they be highways, railroads, bus services or something else.

無名 - wu ming said...

i was horrified to hear from several friends who moved to north carolina that it's common to make roads without even sidewalks, so walking is impossible. as a davisite, i get irritated by the lack of bike lanes everywhere else, but no sidewalks?

building the infrastructure today makes the challenges of tomorrow a whole lot less painful.

Anonymous said...

Re-Training America gets middle of the road marks in my opinion Rob! Basically it gets hooked onto the whole public perception of rail without addressing what it takes to change it! Essentially the beginning of the end of the railroads began when Congress started deciding how much money they thought the railroads should make. Actually it is kind of sad to see Congress doing the same thing to the oil companies today. After the beginning of the 20th century the kinds of radical innovations that people like Carnegie and Hill put into the system were no longer put into the RR infrastructure. Things like grade separated crossings and mass electrication were passed up because the BIG RAILROAD (barons) were making too much money so they couldnt make the huge investments themselves any more. Aside from that tangent, what we need to do is make people believe in rail by breaking the mold of public perception of rail -think the Coast Startlight's regularly late trains. This is why the HSR is so important. We in California have the unique honor to show the rest of the country that in the right circumstances, it can be far better. Then even the circumstances will change toward the favor of rail once again. Complete independence from cars is something I hear all the time from supporters of public transit and it gets a bit irritating because everything needs to be done in incremental methods. Unlike the maker of this film (who is probably pretty well off to be able to afford a hybrid while still in school -I on the other hand at UCSD am forced to have a car that I dare not take a date in) most of America does not make their lifestyle choices based on helping the environment and the feel-goods that come along with it. Cars are freedom, and the steps to a public transit based society will take a LONG time. But, trains and mass transit are self fulfilling options. The more reliable options we get with rail, the easier it will be for people to decide to say eliminate a fraction of their trips either to work or visiting friends in another city. People who give up cars these days are generally trying to make a statement (again, irritating), but give them alternatives and change will come slowly. I am an avid supporter of HSR in this sense, its worth the investment. Another note, this documentary says nothing of how amazing our freight infrastructure is in this country -the envy of the world -but that's another issue entirely.

Robert Cruickshank said...

It's not a great film by any means - it has a lot of hallmarks of the student production that it was - but I thought it was a good conversation piece, and judging by the comments it was a good selection for a lazy Saturday.

At the Netroots Nation conference in Austin last month, Oregon Senate candidate Jeff Merkley said he wanted to see high speed rail connecting the entire West Coast - Vancouver BC, Seattle, Portland, Bay Area, LA, SD. I applauded his ambition but, like rafael, I think Sacramento to Portland is and should be rather distant in the future.

Still, the key was that Merkley understood the value of HSR, and he'd be a reliable vote for federal funding of HSR corridors such as ours.

The question of appropriateness is a big one. On the Facebook groups it's not uncommon to have someone say "well I'm not voting for HSR because it doesn't serve me" and they're writing from Chico, or Humboldt, or San Luis Obispo. As most of you know I'm living in Monterey, and I am quite pleased that the closest HSR will come is Gilroy (and I wouldn't have minded an Altamont alignment).

Because it's exactly as rafael said - the key is appropriateness. HSR isn't appropriate for Monterey, but it is for the corridor we're planning to build.

Obviously politics will get in the way, as powerful figures try to divert scarce resources to their pet projects. But given the need for passenger rail investment in America, I'm not exactly seeing a "trains to nowhere" problem. A national policy that sets out the levels of service each area is expected to receive, along the lines of what was produced for the Interstate Highway System in the mid-1950s, would be valuable.

Anonymous said...

Right you are. I have to say though that I love the blog, and read it regularly. HSR needs a voice, not just a preachy message, but realist arguments for a big idea. Keep it up Robert!

Rubber Toe said...

Does the Act Blue link that you provided send the donations directly to the "official" site at The reason I ask is because when you follow the links to the donation pages you end up with two completely different screens/sites.

The official web site also doesn't show total amount raised, and unless I'm mistaken I couldn't find a link that shows what they intend to spend the money on. Any links or further information would be appreciated. After all, this is a direct way for us to have a say in the level of information that will get out to the public.

Other Robert

Robert Cruickshank said...

The link sends you to ActBlue, which is a kind of clearinghouse for Democratic and progressive campaigns. ActBlue is sort of like PayPal in that it merely takes money from a donor and gives it to a campaign. So by donating using the link I put up, the money - ALL the money - goes to Californians for High Speed Trains.

They also have their own direct contribution page, but ActBlue is basically the same thing, since ActBlue does not add on fees or take fees out of the donation. If you give $50 via ActBlue it's exactly the same as giving $50 directly to them.

As to how exactly they're going to spend the money, you'd have to ask them. Aside from a few conversations with their campaign I'm not affiliated with them or a part of their team, although I certainly support their work.

Anonymous said...

Most Americans today have no idea what a great rail and transit system the country had has late 1957-59. My old home town had train
service to NYC- chicago 6 times a day! Now nothing..even Greyhound is gone. You cant get there without driving.It will take 20-30 years to get us back.With HRS as the transit systems and peoples lifestyles grow with this system we will have it again

Matthew Melzer said...

Re-Training America is also posted on YouTube:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Anonymous said...

As a individual who grew up in the car capital (Detroit), I can understand and relate as to what a culture without a balanced transportation "triad" (e.g. Bus, Rail, Air) can eventually breakdown into. I enjoyed the documentary from the perspective that "average" Americans are capable of understanding the current transportation crisis (which, for some reason, the same politicians we tend to vote for over and over again can't grasp)

However, as a resident of Southern California over the past 17 years, I have major concerns over the HSR bill coming up for a vote this fall. My issue is not about high speed rail, mind you, my concern is over the application.

Say for example, the bill passes; I find it extremely hard to believe that the same state legislature that has done such a poor job of managing the state's finances since I've lived here is going to be suddenly capable of not only bringing a huge project such as this in on time, but within budget.

Not to sound too cynical, but let's look at the HSR. Okay, it goes from Los Angeles to San Francisco. That's all well and good, but when the line is complete, how many will use it? what will it's purpose be for mainly? commuting? travel? is it's main purpose to promote more private partnerships with local government? I'm just not seeing enough consensus within the state to give me confidence in this project, but I'd like to! That's why I'm posting this, if you folks can point me in the right direction to get some of my concerns answered, I'll be one of the first people pulling the lever for High Speed rail.

Also, for the revolution to continue in alternative transportation options, we, as a society will have to to a dramatic change in the way we build and design cities. From just basic examples in my own backyard (Pasadena, CA with the metro Gold Line extension), when you put a good, solid reliable rail line in, development tends to either precede or follow, much to the benefit of all involved.

Spokker said...

marc r, you have some very valid concerns, but ridership estimates are by their very nature speculative. Whether you believe them or not tends to hinge on your perception of rail travel in the first place.

It may be difficult for someone to imagine who would use a high speed rail line from LA to SF and all points between. However, it's difficult for me to imagine who WOULDN'T use a high speed rail line from LA to SF.

Many of the potential riders have been targeted already in previous posts and comments, but I think that there are those in the Central Valley that are chomping at the bit for a high speed rail connection to the rest of the state as they are underserved by airlines. The Amtrak San Joaquins are seeing healthy ridership but it does take hours and hours to get anywhere and is subject to freight delays.

I think business people will use it. I think tourists will use it, both Californians looking to explore their own state and those visiting from out of state and out of country. I think commuters will use it in the Caltrain and Metrolink corridors.

I see myself working in Downtown LA for the foreseeable future. I can see myself commuting from Anaheim to LA as I already do. I can see many people who drive now attracted to HSR because of the high speeds.

I personally don't care if the project raises taxes. I don't care if it requires a subsidy (especially when airlines get bailed out lol). I don't care if it comes in over budget. It being completed late would irritate me though.

Speaking of the Gold Line, I rode it today to Mission Station, strolled though, bought a coffee, and went back to Union Station. I was killing time waiting for my Metrolink train. I wouldn't have otherwise made that trip if it weren't for rail. I wouldn't have made that drive on the horribly outdated 110 freeway. I wouldn't have discovered this enjoyable little area.

I believe that rail helps us to slow down and discover new things. Because who the hell wants to drive anywhere anymore? People always complain about driving and other drivers.

Well, it's time to put up or shut up, and vote for more rail in your country, your state, and your city.

I just think it's the more enjoyable way to travel.

Brandon in California said...

I am with spokker.

Spokker said...

It doesn't always, but I believe that rail can spur not just development, but smart development. It can create more walkable communities. It can create the kind of relatively quiet, dignified life that residents of Menlo Park and Atherton enjoy. It can bring that kind of dignity to the rest of us, we who have to deal with hellish commutes, roaring freeways, and choking fumes.

Imagine places where you hear not honking and revving, but the gentle rumble of the electric train every so often. Imagine places with tree-lined sidewalks, where the pedestrian is KING, not a liability or obstacle for drivers.

I see the seedlings of such communities on the Gold Line in Pasadena. I can see it happening with high speed rail. I can see rail of all types bringing a sense of community, order, and dignity to urban areas, where we all don't hide away in our cars, where we aren't afraid to say hello to someone we don't know.

Yes, transit can be chaotic, especially in the big city during rush hour. But even rail can bring a sense of order to the big city, where your biggest worry isn't going to be where to put your goddamn car, but how much you're going to enjoy the thing you came there for in the first place, which, by the time you paid, parked, and calmed down enough to lower your blood pressure, you've forgotten why the hell you went out in the first place.

You know, stupid shit like that, is the main reason why I support rail transit.

So maybe the residents of Menlo Park and Atherton can deal with a little construction. The same kind of construction we poor bastards deal with every single day, (construction I never asked for, never wanted) just so the rest of us may have the opportunity to walk a little more, slow down a little bit more.

One day we might even be able to live a life free from that mechanical beast known as the automobile.

Hell, they might end up wanting to join in too.