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Consider train travel

Letter to the Editor | Monday, November 24, 2008

Thanksgiving is right around the corner. Chances are good that you, like millions of other Americans, will be going home for the long weekend. Chances are also good that you will be either flying or driving. Unless you live within a couple hour’s drive, your trip will probably be uncomfortable, expensive, stressful and it will probably involve a delay. It will also emit a lot of Carbon Dioxide and other pollutants, in addition to the more aesthetic problems of noise and light pollution that these modes of transportation foster.

It does not have to be like this though; there is a third option: rail travel. Trains are a very comfortable, incredibly efficient mode of transportation, and they can be made extremely fast, reliable and comparatively cheap.

Many Americans have never even ridden on a train. They do not consider trains when making travel plans. Even though I have had experience with commuter rail and subways all my life, I never really considered long-distance rail until this fall, when my CSC Energy Policy Seminar took the Capitol Limited to Washington, DC for Fall Break. The trip was incredibly comfortable – we had at least three feet of legroom in coach (first class passenger had full sleeper compartments) and access to a full lounge car. My flight for Thanksgiving has been booked for months, but after my Fall Beak journey I have been looking at Amtrak timetables for future trips.

Trains are far lighter on the environment than other modes of transport. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, trains are the most efficient mode of transport in terms of emissions per passenger. Electric trains can be powered by renewable sources of power such as wind. Additionally, rail lines take up far less space than a road carrying an equivalent amount of traffic would.

America’s rail network was once the envy of the world, providing safe, reliable and fast access to virtually every town of any size. Rural areas currently without airports nearby enjoyed regular service, and mail and freight moved at least as quickly as today aboard specialized trains. We let it decline after World War II though, putting our faith in automobiles, the purchasing, maintenance and fueling of which, according to railroad historian John Stilgoe, places an unsustainable burden on many American families. Having been raised in a car culture, many people see trains as relics of the past.

This is changing though. Cities such as Denver and St. Louis, have recently installed popular light-rail networks, and Amtrak has introduced new rail routes extending service into Maine by popular demand. New Jersey Transit reported a 6 percent increase in commuter rail ridership in 2007. California recently passed a ballot initiative proposing a high-speed rail network linking the major cities in the state. Many European countries have had high-speed rail for over a decade which have become accepted as the preferred mode of transportation for trips under 500 miles in length.

For decades, America was at the forefront of railroad innovation, inventing high-speed rail with creation of streamliners in the 1920s. Famed trains such as the Santa Fe’s Super Chief and the New York Central’s 20th Century Limited are still remembered today for their speed and luxury. Rail was once known to all as “the way to travel,” and it still is; we just need to remember it.

Jackson Bangs


Stanford Hall

Nov. 17