June 8, 2010

How to Build a Heavy Rail Red Line


A potential Metro/MARC/Bus Transit Terminal along the Amtrak tracks at Edison Highway belies the MTA's contention that heavy rail is more expensive than light rail (Bayview is in background)

A Sun editorial of May 3rd repeats the oft-told falsehood about the MTA's Red Line opposition. That is, the Sun states that heavy rail would be "pricier" than light rail. So it must be repeated again: The Sun is absolutely wrong. A heavy rail plan would actually be far less expensive than the MTA's $1.8 billion light rail plan, in addition to being far more rational.



I just completed a trip on Amtrak's "all the rail you can stand for fifteen days" plan. Pretty hardcore - All the way from Baltimore to the San Fransisco Bay Area, down to LA and back. Six nights attempting to sleep in a coach seat. Nearly 7000 miles. About 160 scheduled train hours plus overtime. All for only $389 plus a small contribution from the American taxpayers payable in annual billion dollar chunks.

Riding Amtrak couldn't possibly be any more different from air travel. You must suspend all notions of time. There's no visible security whatsoever. Super spacious seats, but still quite cramped when you realize that this seat comprises your entire home for the interminable duration. It is an otherworldly experience just witnessing how people improvise with their seat to try to get some sleep. Some end up with their heads on the floor and feet in the air. Other contortions are even more indescribable. People elbowing and head-butting total strangers. John and Yoko's "sleep-ins" were never like this.

You could really wreak some privacy havoc by publishing pictures of these folks online. And to think I slept with all of them. Well, I didn't really sleep. I use that word loosely away from its carnal application. Come to think of it, I didn't sleep at all for six nights, but Amtrak is such an extra-dimensional experience of suspended animation that the whole concept of sleep eventually loses all meaning anyway.

But the big thing is the views of America. Though your domicile is but a single coach seat, your front yard is the entire country. You soon rediscover what a huge wonderful wondrous country this is. Purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain indeed. Unlike through the windshield of a car, your view has no visible means of support. You don't see ribbons of highway. You can't even see the rails. There are no signs or billboards beckoning for you to do this or that. There is nothing between you and America. You're usually going slow enough to fixate on the smallest detail if you so wish - a single house or yard or crop or weed or riverbank or whatnot. Except that it all just floats by. You can't stop and interact. It's all just out there.


Amtrak has benefited greatly from the niche-ification of America. Airlines have become America's mass transit between places more than a couple hundred miles apart, where the human cattle queue-up at airport security gates and strap-in and do what they're told. But the lunatic fringe who don't care about actually getting from Point A to B in just a few hours is now large enough that Amtrak is setting ridership records even though it is as irrelevant as ever to moving the masses.

Yes, from a transportation system standpoint, Amtrak is mostly irrelevant. Amtrak is too labor intensive to enjoy any significant economies of scale, except in the dense northeast and perhaps a few other places. Amtrak's long-term wish list is essentially no more ambitious than to replace their aging fleet and fix some track bottlenecks that will allow it to go incrementally faster and have fewer conflicts with freight trains, and perhaps reinstate some marginal routes.

It is not Amtrak, but freight rail which has the big potential for growth as the world attempts to transition to efficient energy use. One of the few things that rouse Amtrak passengers is when their train is waylaid by an even slower 150 car freight train, but that freight train saves a whole lot more energy than Amtrak ever could. Amtrak only gets in the way.


It dawned on me that I was an eco-tourist, another product of the niche-ification of America. No, I'm not in the class of the world's #1 eco-tourist, Al Gore (sorry, Bono), who gallivants the globe collecting awards, racking frequent flier miles, holding big rock concerts and rousing the populace. But I did get that same kind of sanctimonious high from knowing that I traveled 7000 miles without a car or a plane ride, whatever the point.

So when I finally stopped over in various hotels in Chicago, San Fransisco, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Albuquerque to get an actual night's sleep in an actual bed, and I read the hotel placards that said the fate of the world was in my hands, and that I had a choice to either re-use the towels and save the planet or cause its doom by using them only once, my eco-conscience was unmoved. In order to stay on my 15 day Amtrak regimen, I stayed in each hotel only one night, so my dirty linen was washed to the max, and the world will thus go to hell in a laundry cart because of me. But I slept well.

To each his own. The Baltimore Sun reported a month ago that the resort town of Ocean City, Maryland has suspended its recycling program to save money, which the Sun said will cause thousands of ecologically minded tourists to burn more gas driving hundred of miles farther to other resorts so they can spend their eco-dollars feeling good when they throw away their bottles and paper. Ocean City is not a last resort.


So now I've finally ridden on most of every long-distance route Amtrak offers. I understand viscerally why people love railroads and want to build rail mass transit even though it often makes little sense as a structural element of an actual transportation system. I hope I've demonstrated over the years in my blog how it actually could make sense, with a truly integrated hierarchical system instead of overhyped projects ranging from the overweight underpowered Amtrak Acela to the proposed streetcar-on-steroids Baltimore Red Line.

There is something about the rails that alters our perceptions of reality. But realizing our human condition is the first step toward a treatment and cure. The same kind of railroad mind blowing takes place when contemplating a short meandering 45 minute trip on the proposed Red Line from one side of Baltimore to the other. The Baltimore Red Line is just the quick-fix rail gateway drug toward the 7000 mile coast-to-coast Amtrak overdose.



New York to Miami - The boring east coast, using antiquated single-level equipment because the Superliners wouldn't fit through the Baltimore tunnels and because it would be a waste to use them on these runs anyway.

New York to New Orleans - It skirts the mountains so it's not much better than the east coast trains.

New York/Boston via Buffalo to Chicago - Very nice east and south of Albany through the Hudson Valley and Berkshires, but that's about it.

Los Angeles via San Antonio to New Orleans/Chicago - Some nice desert and double decker Superliners. Takes even more forevers than most Amtrak runs.

Chicago to New Orleans - Amtrak didn't rename it thus until after the Steve Goodman/Arlo Guthrie song about the Illinois Central train that preceded it. The Mississippi bayou is nice.

Chicago to Seattle/Portland - Overrated in my estimation. Ratio of scenery to distance is low. Hits Glacier Park in the dark too often, and misses the best part anyway.

Chicago to Washington DC - The great Pittsburgh skyline and lots of great river valleys from the Ohio to the Mon to the Youk to the Potomac, and as much of Lake Erie as you need to see, and it uses Superliners too.

Chicago via Cincinnati to New York - Extreeeeemely slow, even by Amtrak standards. Lovely trip over the Appalachians and the USA's most impressive view under a bridge through the New River Gorge. The Ohio River is the best river to see at night with chemical plants and bridges all lit up and Cincinnati has the best skyline view for a city of its size. When the route was extended from DC to New York, the Superliners were given to the Capitol Limited, which had just had a huge train wreck near Rockville.

#3 - CHIEF
Los Angeles via Kansas City to Chicago - Amtrak's fastest long distance train, but still slow. The highlight is the mountains north of Albuquerque to Trinidad, Colorado.

Los Angeles to Seattle - The super-highlight is hovering right over the Pacific coast north of Santa Barbara on land preserved au naturel by the U.S. Air Force, and then climbing inland to San Luis Obispo, so you can get the same thrills from the local Surfliner trains. It hits NoCal's spectacular Mount Shasta at night, unfortunately. Try to schedule for a full moon.

Chicago via Denver to SF Bay Area - This is the one you must see before you die, at least between Denver and Glenwood Springs, although once you get there, I defy you to leave the train. The climb and descent west of Denver could probably be rivaled by the Space Shuttle experienced only in slo-mo. And then west of the continental divide, it follows the Colorado River nearly from its source, including many miles where the canyon is only wide enough for the river and you. I think I left my jaw back on the track. From there into California, the deserts and high Sierras would be fantastic enough even without what came before.