We are trained to be sentimental, not realistic, about rail travel

In a little more than a month, my brother and his wife, along with their two grandchildren, will arrive in Grand Junction via train. They will embark on the Amtrak train near their home in Illinois.

I have taken the train a couple of times from Colorado back to the Midwest. My sister and her daughter visited a couple years ago, arriving by rail. When my parents were more mobile than they are now, they regularly boarded Amtrak trains to visit different parts of the country.

Trains are a pleasant way to travel if you have sufficient time. There is a romance about them, built on our history, black-and-white movies, story books, countless train songs and the sounds and sensations of rail travel.

Also, they really did revolutionize the world. Consider that for all of human history, until the mid-19th century, there was no faster form of land transportation than riding a horse.

Trains are many things. But one thing they are not — at least when it comes to hauling passengers — is profitable.

They are great for hauling coal and other bulky freight items. In the northeast corridor of this country, Amtrak even does reasonably well moving passengers. But that success is very limited. One Pew study found that in 2008, 41 of Amtrak’s 44 routes lost money. They require taxpayer subsidies to continue chugging along.

There are a variety of reasons for that. But mostly, people are unwilling to pay what a ticket would actually cost if it covered all the operating expenses for a form of travel that is much slower than airplanes, often slower than automobiles, and doesn’t allow you the convenience of having your vehicle when you arrive at your destination.

One of the ways train supporters hope to make train travel more attractive is to create high-speed rail routes in many areas. Indeed, President Barack Obama has said his goal is to make high-speed rail service available to 80 percent of all Americans within 25 years.

Well, it would certainly be wonderful to dash around the country on 200 mph trains. How about a jaunt to Denver in a couple of hours?

But, for a high-speed project, it’s definitely off to a slow start.

Many readers are probably aware that states such as Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin have rejected federal money for high-speed trains, claiming the cost to the state of building and operating the trains would far outweigh any benefit of accepting the money. Especially in Florida, there were doubts about whether there would be adequate ridership on the initial route.

All those cases involved Republican governors making political points. The latest dustup is in Democratically controlled California, which has accepted $3 billion for a high-speed rail project. But not everyone is convinced that it was a great decision.

The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office this month questioned the management for the project, and suggested that debt service on it could cost the state $1 billion a year.

In addition, to reduce opposition and cost, the first portion of the project that is supposed to eventually link Los Angeles and San Francisco will be built in a relatively unpopulated section of the central valley. Consequently, public demand to ride that section of the train is expected to be extremely low.

Even The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, usually supportive of Obama’s policies, have questioned the feasibility of the project.

I don’t know what the future of train travel is in this country, but I suspect that 25 years from now, well over 80 percent of us will still be climbing in our personal vehicles for most trips.

And that won’t be a terrible thing for the environment, despite what some train advocates and environmentalists might argue.

Randall O’Toole, an expert on public transportation and a critic of high-speed trains, wrote this for the libertarian Reason magazine in February:

“While it takes a lot of energy to move trains 150 miles per hour or more, autos are getting cleaner and more energy-efficient every year, so by 2025, the average car will be greener than the most efficient trains.”

Developing technologies such as laser spark plugs may help the trusty old internal combustion engine burn cleaner and more efficiently.

Meanwhile, the future of Amtrak is also uncertain. Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plan calls for defunding it.

I hope that federal funding isn’t entirely eliminated, but Amtrak is an easy target in a time of increasing federal debt. Even some of its long-time supporters say we need to rethink the routes it travels and its ticket pricing if the government-run train system is to survive.

There is still a special feeling one gets when hearing the call, “All aboard!” It suggests the rhythm of wheels on steel tracks, a link to our past. But it is not the transportation system of our future.


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