Gas Pains! Where is the train?

By Noel Braymer, Editor, Western Rail Passenger Review — The answer in most cases is that the trains are full, at least during rush hours. The Department of Energy has announced that it expects gasoline prices to continue to rise during the peak summer driving season. This on top of already record breaking prices for fuel. The current run up on fuel prices is mostly a political rather than a technical problem. Many of the major oil producing counties are politically unstable. Greater political stability would greatly improve the current oil supply. American politicians have done little to reduce America’s dependence on oil or to develop alternatives. In the future if we continue to use oil faster than we can find new sources, it is only a matter of time before we experience serious shortages. But for now we can be sure that neither the oil companies nor oil producing countries are very upset over record profits.

Current transportation planning in this country is totally blind to the reality that in the future there will be oil shortages. Neither is there any acceptance that rising levels of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is a factor in global warming and weather change. A good example of this is the expectation that air travel will continue to grow at a steady rate. Yet after the September 11th terrorist attacks, air travel declined for several years. Even now air travel barely exceeds the levels before 2001. Air travel ridership can be very volatile. Air travel burns a significant amount of fuel which is a major cost for airlines. Major increases in fuel costs translate into higher air fares. This won’t end all air travel. But higher fares will mean people will travel less by air.

Transportation shapes development. Urban sprawl is directly related to the building of roads and dependence on the auto. This is all dependent on “cheap oil”. The quest for “affordable housing” has people commuting 100 miles or more a day between work and home. Many people have put themselves indebt up to their eyeballs to buy houses far from their jobs in the hope that it will pay off if housing continues to appreciate. But higher fuel costs doesn’t only dig into stretched transportation budgets for many Americans. Higher fuel cost creates inflation, rising prices on everything. With these come higher interest rates which will hit many people hard as the “housing bubble” continues to deflate.

Planning is going ahead to expand freeways up to 14 lanes wide in San Diego County, and Riverside County wants to build a tunnel for a new freeway through the mountains to Orange County. Rising energy costs will soon make such projects much more expensive than they are currently projected. But there are still places where modest improvements to the railroads can greatly improve transportation. In San Diego County much of the Coast Line is still single tracked. Double tracking would allow trains to run up to every 15 minutes during rush hours and half hourly the rest of the time. A train tunnel can carry more people and cargo, more safely at a fraction of the cost than a freeway tunnel. A factor to consider since concrete production is energy intensive.

Rail based development is much more energy efficient than urban sprawl. Not only are high occupancy rail vehicles more energy efficient, but the development created around rail service saves energy. Because things are not so spread out there is less travel to get to place to place. People can even walk to get from the train station to where they are going. This is a major reason most other developed counties in Europe and Japan use so much less energy than we do. Just in California we still have miles of rail rights of way that can be rebuilt for passenger service. The old SP right of way over the Altamont Pass, the old Santa Fe Harbor sub in Los Angeles County, The UP mainline in the San Joaquin Valley and miles of UP branch lines in Orange County for regional rail are just some examples that come to mind.

More rail passenger service is clearly in the future for California and the rest of the county. Upgrading rail lines will expand service on existing services and create new services. This can be done while also expanding freight use on the railroads. It will cost money. But it will be much more economical than continuing our dependence on the auto, which without “cheap oil” will become very expensive.

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