Revitalizing Public Transportation

The decline of various sorts of public transportation has been going on since the 1920s.  It started way back then with the bus replacing the streetcar.  Then in the 1950s, and particularly with the start of the Interstate system, the highway replaced all public transportation except the airplane which was growing rapidly.  Private rail companies worked hard to end most of their passenger service.  Prior to 1920 there was hardly a city, town or village that you could not get to on the train.  The appearance of the truck as an alternative to the rail freight car to the transportation of freight gave the railroad its first competition.  The branch line of the railroad suffered.  Revenue declines caused many of these branch lines to be abandoned.  With that alternative transportation came to small town America.

After World War II the Intercity bus quickly became a much less expensive alternative to rail travel, and, the provider had far lower costs than the railroads.  That coupled with the rise of air travel sapped passenger traffic from the existing rail passenger service.  Railroads tried to compete by modernizing their fleet but it was still far more expensive than the bus and the cost of that service quickly became a financial loss for all railroads.

In the early 1960 cities all over the U.S. began taking over operation of the once private city bus and rapid transportation systems.  They recognized they would always need some sort of public transportation to support the economy of their city.  It wasn’t long before individual states became involved with the introduction of the regional transportation systems.

Then in the late 1960s the railroads were petitioning the government to abandon all their existing passenger rail service.  All railroads were losing money.  The Federal Government recognized this truth and created AMTRAK.  The expectation was that service in the Northeast Corridor in particular would be retained and maintained.  The view was it was economically responsible to do so.  AMTRAK agreed to take over the railroads’ existing service provided they allowed AMTRAK unrestricted access to their right of way.  At the start of AMTRAK only four railroads opted out of AMTRAK and were therefore required to continue service on their own.  They were the Boston & Maine Railroad, the Southern Railroad, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.  Two of these railroads eventually came to terms with the government, the Southern, and the Denver and Rio Grand.  The Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific went bankrupt and out of business, and the Boston & Maine was  allowed in time to end its intercity service.

People often wonder why AMTRAK is not more like the railroads of Europe and Japan.  The reason is simple.  The intercity railroads of those areas have always been government operations.  But even more importantly, the governments involved were always proactive in maintaining and upgrading their rail system to meet the demands of the day and of the traveler.  They also never had a profit motivation.  They simply look at intercity rail service as a necessity and provide adequate funding.  This has allowed them to maintain the first-rate service we are all familiar with.

Conversely, the U.S. Government has never shown complete commitment to rail passenger service.  Short sighted politicians make foolish arguments about rail service paying for itself.  The only criteria they all is monetary.  They never allow for the greater good because that idea is intrinsically not quantifiable.  Because of that we have a 3rd rate system.  Even the northeast corridor, the very best portion of AMTRAK, is in truth second-rate.  It is second-rate because while the northeast corridor struggles to provide their version of high-speed rail service, they are still trying to achieve 100 MPH for the length of the corridor, European countries and Japan are working of 200 MPH service.  The ugly truth is, the speed of service from Boston to New York can be increased by 50%, and service between New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC can be sped up by 25%.  There have always been plans on the table to make these increases but excepting for the introduction of faster trains, little else has been done when there is so much that could be done.

Where long distance rail travel is concerned, this country is 3rd or 4th rate.  These trains are slow, their frequency far to low, and the destinations far too few.  For a variety of reasons, service between many large cities, cities that are oft time in fairly close proximity, does not exist.  Some examples of this are: Boston to Montreal, Detroit to Cleveland, Cleveland to Indianapolis and St. Louis,  Cleveland to Cincinnati, Los Angeles to Denver, Los Angeles to Houston, Los Angeles to Dallas, and the list goes on and on.  Particularly in cities west of the Mississippi, it is not so much the major cities that lack for rail passenger service, it is there small cities and towns that lie between any two destinations that presently have no air service, and limited, if any, bus service.  This situation is embarrassing for as rich a nation as the U.S. is.

Along that same line is the transportation authorities that exist in most cities of the U.S. today.  The system I am most familiar with is the MBTA here in Boston.  The MBTA is struggling to meet 2011 transportation problems with a system that was designed around 1900.  Such systems are very expensive to maintain and a nightmare to improve.  Only two major cities in the U.S. have built new subways systems, Washington DC and Los Angeles.  I am familiar with the Washington DC system and it is a model system.  That simply says it can be done, nothing more.

Transportation systems put rail travel into one of three categories, rapid transit (the subway system), light rail (the streetcar), and heavy rail (commuter rail transit).  All systems provide bus transportation.  When most of these systems were put in place, the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new fleet of buses was provided.  Their rail fleet, regardless of type, was, except in the largest cities, also new.  Today most of these systems are aging and in desperate need of replacement.  That is very expensive and politicians are very reluctant to provide the needed fund fearing public recriminations.  Of course, they a short on information.  They do not inform the public why the price tag is high and how they plan to pay for it.  Both can be done suitably.

Those systems that have provided continuous service since they took over for the private companies, still use models set up by those old companies.  Here in Massachusetts, at least, you cannot take an MBTA bus that takes you to the bus system of an adjoining transportation authority regardless of how close they are.  For example, you cannot take and MBTA bus to the Lowell, Lawrence, or Brockton regional systems even though those systems all border the MBTA.  I do not think it unreasonable to believe that these same situations exist in cities all over the U.S.

The point of all this is, the cost of traveling via automobile is going up and will sooner than later escalate faster than our individual ability to keep up.  Our road system, the entire infrastructure, is falling apart and this is due in no small part to the high usage by automobiles.  You cannot fault a person for driving a car when there is either no alternative or the alternative is not reasonable.

I am not suggesting that we return the city and inter-city bus and rail system we had in the 1920s but I am suggesting that we need to expand what we have presently.  We cannot allow our politicians to load us down with the idea that public transportation must pay for itself in a solely financial manner.  For the most part, that is not going to happen.  But it can pay for itself by providing economic centers transportation between each other.  We have to recognize that not only is our road system over-burdened, but our airports are also at or beyond capacity.  The expense of air travel is also out of reach for more and more people.  It is time we recognize that the only reasonable response is a comprehensive transportation system that is affordable to even the poorest of our citizens. To do otherwise is both foolish and irresponsible.


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