Bad start to the New Year

by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President — Well, to be frank, January stank. The first half of January it rained constantly. The result was washouts and mudslides that disrupted rail service throughout California. Canceled and late trains due to heavy snows in the Midwest and East didn’t help project the image of passenger rail service as the all weather mode. Then came January 26th. One person who thought he had problems wanted to use the rails to kill himself. Now charged with 11 counts of murder he will find out what real trouble is. Mix into this the latest State budget battle with transportation funds being stolen again to help pay the State’s other bills.

What do all these things have in common? Well the solution to many of our problems in improving rail service in California depend on capital spending. We still need to upgrade many rail lines to make them less vulnerable to mudslides and washouts. We have heard a lot about “Security” on the Trains. Asking a to see a person’s identification is mostly a waste of time. Bad people can easily get forged papers. Most disasters don’t happen on the trains, they happen on the tracks! Suicidal people are increasingly drawn to the tracks. Vandals often place debris on the tracks, throw switches in the wrong location, and damage signals. The most common problem are vehicles at or near grade crossings the train can’t avoid hitting..

We need to spend money. We need better security on the tracks, particularly on busy mainlines such as at the disaster in Glendale. We need more grade separation particularly on the mainlines to keep vehicles and trespasser off the railroad. We need improved signaling that can stop a train if it runs through a red light. Having cameras and sensors on the right of way to detect things on the tracks that don’t belong, and the ability to stop trains if there is a problem is better than spending money for seat belts on passenger trains.

One thing the State budget needs to bring in enough tax revenues is a strong economy. For that we need economic growth. Economic growth depends on good transportation and housing. Housing is big business and there is a shortage of housing in California which is holding back growth in California. Developers are some of the biggest boasters of road building. Building roads does nothing to relieve traffic congestion.: roads create traffic. What roads do is open more land to development. The problem is roads are so congested that it is getting harder to dump any more traffic on them. Also, land is becoming harder to find for development. Rising fuel costs will make 100 mile commutes by auto less appealing. Commuter and transit rail is needed to make higher density development attractive and practical. Rail service will be the key to insure economic growth, more housing and promote greater energy efficiency.

As long as I can remember, which goes back to the late 50’s, there has been talk that buses can replace rail service. These proposals were usually not promoted by the traveling public, but by groups competing with rail for scarce tax dollars for other projects. Busways , and bus streets and now rapid bus have been promoted as “cheaper alternatives to rail.” Buses have lower initial capital costs, But fall short of rail in economics when it comes to capacity and operating cost per passenger. There is a need to improve bus service. But what bus service doesn’t do, which rail service can do well is attract development. The San Diego Trolley is being used to rebuild downtown San Diego. At many trains stations around California we see housing and commercial development. Rail can be in the 21st century what the freeway was in the 20th as the magnet for development.

For this to happen, commuters have to have confidence that rail service is dependable and safe. It is cold comfort to realize the death toll was remarkably low on the 26th in Glendale considering the number of people on the two trains and the violence of the impact of trains hitting each other head on. Rail Passenger service is still very safe. But it can be safer. The best way to make it safer is to prevent trains from being hit, or hitting each other in the first place.

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