Train vistas inside this email. Transit thinking too.
Bay Area, California —
Welcome back to The Planet You Save, a weekly newsletter on local climate action. I'm Taylor Kate Brown and I'm very aware of the giant climate change conference happening in Scotland right now, but we stay as local-as-possible in this newsletter. That being said, next week I'll share some of the best COP26 coverage that overlaps. For now, all aboard....
I’m back in California after two weeks of travel, from Providence to DC, then to Chicago and finally a return to the Bay Area.
At no point in the past two weeks did I step on an airplane. I did it all by train.
Why? Because for once, I had the time to do so. Because, travel by train, even a diesel-powered one, is less emission-intensive than flying. Because I was curious what the experience was like.
So would I recommend doing a cross-country trip via train? My short answer is: as an experience, yes, absolutely. As a regular way to get across the 3000+ miles of America? No.
To get from Washington, DC to the West Coast, I took two trains, one was an overnight journey from DC to Chicago. The second was a 54-hour marathon between Chicago and the Bay Area. By the time we rolled into Emeryville, California, I had spent three days and two nights on what was functionally a land-cruise (meals are included with a sleeper car reservation! The berths are small but comfortable! Plenty time to sightsee, but only from your window!)
A century ago, train trips used to be the norm. In 1918, 98% of trips between any two cities in the US were done by train. The growth of the highway system and air travel — both made cheaper through federal support — undid that dominance throughout the first half of the century.
Amtrak itself isn’t that old: it exists because almost two-dozen passenger rail services were in deep financial trouble in the late 1960s, threatening the freight part of the business. Nixon signed the bill that created the system, but did so expecting it to fail just in time to leave the blame to his successor. Instead, Amtrak stuck around through some particularly rough times, and in the past 20 years, ridership has steadily grown (pandemic notwithstanding).
This history — and the knowledge of Amtrak’s current complicated relationship with the freight companies that own the lines they travel on outside of the northeast — helped me understand why Chicago to California is nearly a three-day journey. But it’s pretty hard to recommend it for regular travel, even as a pure emissions-reductions strategy.
Amtrak’s own, more modest proposal for the $66 billion additional funding in the infrastructure bill, includes far more new trains in between cities that don’t have any existing passenger service, or where it’s extremely limited. (On my train, we arrived at Salt Lake City at 2am, sorry Utahans!). Look at this particular corner of the Amtrak proposal, which as I understand it, doesn't actually require laying down any new track.
(dark blue is existing Amtrak services, the light blue is proposed new service, yellow is proposed additional service)
One of the reasons the Northeast Corridor is actually popular is that it’s a true replacement option for everyday trips between cities. If you’re going to New York from DC, the flight is shorter, but there’s security and then getting to and from the airport. I'd much rather arrive in midtown Manhattan than LaGuardia.
But the distance between Houston and Dallas is a very similar - why not add a passenger service on existing tracks? Why not add Austin and San Antonio while you’re at it?
I’m not always convinced by “if you build it they will come” logic, but there’s certainly a group of people for which a Texas “quad-cities corridor” train option would be a more pleasant, and probably faster, option than driving. Replace this idea with “Nashville to Atlanta” or “Los Angeles to Las Vegas” or “Cincinnati to Cleveland” and you start to get the idea: we might reduce a lot more transportation emissions by creating options for more common car rides and short flights than trying to build a giant high-speed rail system for the next 30 years. In a perfect world, we’d do both -
The same logic applies to local transit systems, which can make huge differences in a city’s emissions reductions. As Gabby Birenbaum writes in this Vox article:
With poverty increasing most quickly in the suburbs, the Numtot admins said better local light rail systems, for instance, could help strike a balance between the expenses of either living in increasingly unaffordable cities or taking on the costs of car ownership in a suburb....
But while better-funded light rail and redesigning a city bus network fall into the push for transportation justice, they are not quite as sexy as a national high-speed rail project. And that’s the catch: High-speed rail is bold and attention-grabbing, but the scale of the project makes it near impossible.
Traveling across the country also drove home another “duh” moment for why Amtrak persists in long-haul routes: not everybody lives near a full-service airport.
On the morning of day two, in my big-city naiveté, I was shocked to see a line of people, heavy with luggage waiting to get on the train at Winnemucca, Nevada. Winnemucca is a town of 7,000 whose history is tied up with railroads, and the closest passenger service airport is in Elko (which only connects to hub airports in the West). Reno is almost three hours away and Salt Lake City, a major hub, is five. Every single one of these cities I just listed was also a stop along the train, even though the stops were hours apart. No logical high-speed rail system would stop at Winnemucca or Elko, but there’s clearly interest and need there.
Do you use the train to make shorter trips? Would any of the proposed Amtrak routes actually interest you? Have you ridden a cross-country train and think my assessment is all wrong? Think we should slow down expectations of travel to reduce flying? Reply to this email and let me know.
(Your author finally outside for a fresh-air break after a three hour delay outside the Moffat Tunnel after a freighter (with liquid petroleum products, because fossil fuel infrastructure is never far away) broke a connector between two cars and had to be fixed before any trains could move)
Next week we'll have our first edition of answering your Back to Basics questions - answering what exactly counts as a greenhouse gas? Back to Basics answers questions about the climate change you're embarrassed you don't quite understand and jargon that's been impenetrable. Let me know what you want answered!
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