On track and on time: ‘National Train Day 2014’

If it were up to me to choose the date to celebrate National Train Day it would be May 1st, the date Amtrak began its national train network operations some 43 years ago in 1971. Now this isn’t to suggest that the historic transcontinental rail hook-up occurring May 10th in the year 1869 wasn’t news-, note- or praiseworthy – it was! However, on May 1, 1971 it seemed as though passenger railroading in the United States was reborn. Therefore, designating May 1st as National Train Day, to me, seems a logical move.

So, why a day to celebrate American railroading anyway?

What was the first time you saw a train? As for my first time, it happened at a north central Baltimore railroad crossing and what I recall witnessing at probably the age of five, was the assemblage of four General Motors – Electro-Motive Division series F7’s (affectionately referred to in train aficionado lingo as “covered wagons”) with a lone caboose in tow (the train itself known as a “caboose hop”) returning to what my guess now was Port Covington, Maryland, their returning from helper duties after assisting a westbound train of empty coal-hopper cars up and over a slight grade, a common practice in those days – that time being circa 1958. The railroad in question here is the Western Maryland.

Like a lot of young folk with similar first encounters, I, to say the least, was fascinated by the sight. I had to be. Otherwise why would this even have registered the way it did? And that penchant for anything trains – even to this very day, some 56 years later – has never waned.

TrainThis is all well and good, but I must also remember – speaking of remembering – that it is necessary that I keep all this in the proper context.

If you think about it, what would the environmental picture be today if not for railroads and railroading?

Automated land transport would more than likely exclusively be rubber-tired, internal-combustion-engine-powered- and road-based. A mouthful, for sure! We’re talking cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles and what-have-you and plenty of them. Quite possibly we would as well be talking the air pollution talk much, much more than is presently the case because, the way I see it, the condition of the air would be far more unhealthful.

Environmentally superior transport

According to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), one train can remove from highways the load of hundreds of trucks. And, by virtue of this, think of the emissions savings.

In addition, the AAR on its Web site states: “In 2012, railroads moved a ton of freight an average of 476 miles per gallon of fuel.”

I would like to know of an auto manufacturer that can boast that kind of miles-per-gallon fuel efficiency for one of its product-line offerings.

Moreover, the AAR declares: “Railroads are the environmentally friendly way to move freight, thanks to their unique ability to reduce highway gridlock, lower fuel consumption, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce pollution. Through the development of new ‘green’ technologies and environmentally responsible operating practices, railroads are committed to even greater environmental excellence in the years ahead.”

High-speed rail-roadblock? Hope not!

Understanding that, it pains me to know that a program, project actually – specifically, the California high-speed rail endeavor – having the potential to do even more good, environmentally speaking, is the ire of those interests opposed, a number of whom it appears are going to considerable lengths to try to stop the train in its tracks. So you know, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) just approved its Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the section of line connecting Fresno and Kern counties.

With regard to a public meeting held in my home town of Fresno earlier this week, one Kings County resident, Frank Oliveira, a member of the Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability group, is cited in an article in The Fresno Bee recently as having said: “‘There are things in the EIR that are not intellectually honest,’ he said. ‘The line through the county has not changed since 2010. They [the CHSRA] ran around and talked to people, but have they really listened to us? I don’t think so, if the line has not changed in four years,’” Tim Sheehan, the Bee article’s author wrote.

I honestly don’t know what to make of such sentiment, the reason being, because when I read pronouncements of this kind, I can’t help but wonder what the opposition would submit to make the project acceptable to them. What remedy or remedies can be agreed on by both the Authority and those opposed as a means to help move the project forward? Is there a compromise solution that can be arrived at that would be to the mutual satisfaction or agreement of both sides? Many questions, I know.

At any rate and as it may relate, Sheehan wrote: “Kings County’s Board of Supervisors and two of its residents are already suing the rail authority over its statewide plan. Authority leaders acknowledged that Wednesday’s votes are likely to generate more lawsuits over whether the EIR complies with the California Environmental Quality Act.”

I must say I’m in favor of the system getting built. The thought of reduced emissions on account of ‘greener’ travel provisions does have a nice ring to it. And being afforded a one-seat ride between northern and southern California locations has its own appeal and would fix a deficit situation, and that is the gap in rail service existing between Bakersfield and destinations in Southern California, a void filled presently by motor coach; variously known as a bus, offered to those traveling on the Amtrak San Joaquin corridor between those two locales, what has become standard operating procedure, in place since service was originally instituted in the Valley in 1974.

Imagine, in one of the most technologically advanced and progressive states in the country and in this, the 21st century no less, that such a condition would exist. Implementation of high-speed rail in the Golden State should not only result in this wrinkle getting ironed out but in helping reduce roadway and aviation delay. It is this very delay that compounds even further the pollution problem (read: “the additional gas being consumed and the corresponding fuels being burned being totally unnecessary”).

‘By train’

That all said, whether good or bad, my spirits have not been dampened in the least as I look forward with much anticipation to National Train Day on May 10th and what this means. To all those who had anything and everything to do with the perpetuation of American railroading, I salute you. None of what is in existence today railroad-wise on terra firma in the good ol’ U.S.A. would have even been possible without you. And neither should be lost sight of is the notion that a substantial amount of the consumer products and commodities, whether by bulk or shipped in less-than-full-train-carload quantities, material/merchandise that we Americans have and use in our lives and no doubt on some level take for granted, remember: there is the strong likelihood that for some portion of the journey between product supplier and end user (consumer), the method of shipment was “by train.” Now, add to this the multitudes of passengers going, again, “by train,” demonstrates that trains have real value.

And, that right there I am sure is the reason for National Train Day’s existence!!

More on National Train Day can be found here.

– Alan Kandel