Why don’t we Americans like trains more?
Maybe it’s because most Americans have never experienced a comfortable, efficient rail system. Maybe our casual dismissal of this mode of transportation is based more on prejudice than on reasoning.
In fact, trains have been the neglected stepsister of American transportation since they began to erode in the 1950s. But the construction of an interstate highway system in place of rail transportation was never inevitable; it was a choice made by government with the support of car companies, oil companies and, probably, most of our citizenry.
Americans preferred to drive. Detroit was producing classic, gas-guzzling automobiles, the music industry recorded great songs about cars and one of the most popular TV shows of that era was “Route 66.” Only a country in love with cars could invent drive-in movies and motels.
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No wonder money was lavished on four-lane interstate highways, while the railroad system was allowed to wither, except in isolated areas like the northeast corridor.
But even there it has suffered from neglect. Which may explain Speaker of the House John Boehner’s defensiveness when confronted with the idea that Amtrak underfunding might have contributed to the train derailment in Philadelphia that resulted in the deaths of eight riders.
Boehner called that suggestion “stupid,” even though the technology that could have prevented the crash is in place in good train systems all over the world; we just hadn’t gotten around to installing it here.
On May 21, New York Times reporter Nicola Clark documented the extent of the neglect of our train system in comparison with other countries. Whether considered in terms of GDP or per capita, U.S. spending on Amtrak ranges from a third to a sixth of the amounts spent elsewhere, despite our much less extensive service.
Clark cites industry experts who say that underfunding results in a train fatality rate 2 to 3 times higher than in the European Union and in countries such as South Korea and Australia.
Nevertheless, last month, even after the crash, the House Appropriations Committee trimmed $251 million from Amtrak’s current funding.
In short, our train system is terrible, and it shows no signs of getting better. The automobile represents something that we prize highly, personal freedom. And who can blame us? Even in countries with good train systems, citizens covet automobiles.
But the decision to embrace automobiles comes with costs.
In fact, if we were going to invent a transportation system from scratch, would we accept one that has inherent dangers that are so difficult to control? No matter how responsible your own driving is, a percentage of the drivers you face are drunk, sleepy, speeding, texting, or just not very good drivers.
We were shocked when eight riders were killed in the Philadelphia crash, but we hardly notice when 90 Americans per day, every day, are killed in car accidents.
Would we invent a system that has the inherent inefficiencies of automobiles? Our cars are built to carry four or six, but how often do they carry just one, leaving enormous carrying capacity unused? And billions of man-hours that could be better spent elsewhere are consumed in the tedious task of driving or sitting in traffic.
Finally, if we had it to do over, would we invent a system that depends on fossil fuels, the energy source that has driven American foreign policy and most of the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries?
But this is the kind of thinking that will prompt some readers to invite me to pack up and move to Europe. Still, consider the train that leaves from the center of Barcelona for the center of Madrid at least 18 times per day. En route you read, doze, surf the web, watch movies, walk down to the bar car and have an elegant dinner with your choice of five types of wine.
In the meantime, the Spanish countryside slips by smoothly at 192 mph. There’s nothing extraordinary about this to Spaniards. Our decision to deprive ourselves of such benefits is a choice that the modern world can no longer support.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.