Trains: No better mode than rail for providing air (pollution) relief

In less than a month the construction activity on the California high-speed railroad project will have been underway exactly one-and-a-half years on Dec. 16, 2016. Four days earlier, yet another milestone will be reached: Amtrak California’s Capitol Corridor service will celebrate 25 years in operation. Capitol Corridor trains began service on Dec. 12, 1991. Trains travel between San Jose in the southwest portion of the corridor and Roseville and Auburn situated to San Jose’s northeast.

320px-Acela_Express_and_Metro-North_railcar[1]There are many who, in this country, bemoan Amtrak as a national passenger rail entity. One central San Joaquin Valley (California) policymaker during a local election campaign debate, in fact, when asked about the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak’s official title), went so far as to state that it was “a train to nowhere.” Moreover, this same person, when similarly queried on California high-speed rail, emphasized that if the line does not extend from Bakersfield over the Tehachapi Mountains and, by extension, doesn’t reach and serve the greater Los Angeles region then, as far as this particular policymaker is concerned, this version of rail does not qualify as high speed.

Now, regarding passenger train travel in general in the U.S., the first thing that should cross the minds of all those who disfavor this type of service, is that the more than 30 million people who yearly ride Amtrak trains, not to mention the tens of millions in America who commute daily (Mon.-Fri.) as train passengers, imagine the all-of-a-sudden impacts if the likes of those folks took to the roads. Added to, obviously, would be roadway traffic and, by association, air pollution if not more congested travel.

So, let’s consider the real and likely operating aspects of the service on America’s first high-speed rail endeavor once operations begin on approximately 120 miles of track between Bakersfield and Madera (north of Fresno), the launching slated for 2021 or 2022.

At the very minimum this trackage which will be fully double-tracked, grade separated (no intersecting roads at the same level or plane) will be available for Amtrak San Joaquin service use. This means that trains in this service territory will be faster – speeds, presumably, of up to 110 miles per hour (if not up to 125 mph depending on equipment in use at the time) will be permitted. Such will have an immediate positive effect on freight trains operating on parallel Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway tracks between Bakersfield and Madera, not to mention that because there will be no intersecting roadways at grade this will mean that not a single motor vehicle will be forced to stop at railroad crossings in this section waiting for trains to pass. That’s because there won’t be any – yup, zip, zilch, zero.

What all this will mean is that for the very first time, passengers will be able to ride fully expecting there to not be any interference from other trains on the line whatsoever which points toward no waiting on either main track sections or on passing sidings stopped for opposing or overtaking trains (overtaking trains are trains of higher priority catching up to and passing trains of lesser priority traveling in the same direction) to go on past.

And, all of this translates to better quality of air because of the far fewer number of stopped vehicles and trains, held on account of their having to wait.

Plus, by virtue of the fact that passenger trains will, on this corridor be traveling from what would ordinarily be a maximum speed of 79 mph, will now be traveling at velocities in the 110 to 125 mph range, depending, allowing for faster transit times for travelers, absolutely. This could translate into the possibility of there being additional roundtrips between Madera and Bakersfield, at least between those two towns, anyway. (There are currently 7 roundtrips total between Bakersfield and Oakland and between the former and Sacramento, for a total of 14 daily trains, where once there were but two trains in 1974 until 1980). More train availability means the likelihood that more travel will be made by train and less by motor vehicle and airplane, presumably. Here, again, all of which points to better quality of local air. If the locomotives powering said trains are even less polluting than what they are presently, then air quality will be made that much better.

This “train-to-nowhere” hyperbole, well, it is just that, hyperbole. Always was and unless and until something better comes along that renders such obsolete and impractical, it always will be.

Alternatively speaking, these trains are all obviously going somewhere, for if they did not, the simple truth is that they would not be used by the millions that ride them annually. In fact, the San Joaquin trains alone see better than a million a year in ridership.

Trains pull their weight

The reality is California high-speed rail is being built. Disbelievers, detractors can deny that reality all they want. It will not change a thing. Further, Amtrak California San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor trains, the reason they are a success is because there are many more people who swear by and use them. Could these services be improved? Unquestionably. But, and here’s the rub; it takes financial support to do this.

While roads and aviation are subsidized, in case anyone is wondering, so too is rail. However, the difference is highways are getting subsidized to the tune of tens of billions of dollars each year. For Amtrak, meanwhile, and this is for the entire national network, mind you, it receives just $1.3 billion or so per year. (Railway robbery in this case, obviously). And such is most definitely counterintuitive as train travel is the most air-friendly, most efficient (fuel efficient or otherwise), most comfortable, and by far the safest way to travel – hands down! Any questions?

Look for a profile covering 25 years of Capitol Corridor service coming soon.

Top image above: Connor Harris

– Alan Kandel