This is not an opinion I formed lightly. It has come from my experiences traveling internationally and witnessing first hand how the United States is clearly behind in rail travel. I am also always reluctant to postulate that our federal government is better or smarter at providing a service than privateers (see: Parcel Delivery). But there are some areas where government standards can improve efficiency and safety (see: FAA & Air Travel – minus the boondoggles that are TSA & DHS).
By having the track rights under federal control, it relieves freight carriers of their property. I say relieve because at the moment they pay property tax on their right-of-ways. Instead it would be better served to have them pay a usage tax, or something similar, rather than retaining ownership. The reason being is the rail network vastly needs up an upgrade.
Freight carriers seem to have no interest in improving the network, only their bottom dollar – which rarely involves speed improvements as freight trains are already the most efficient means of transporting goods. It’s an understandable position given the railroad freight carriers have to maintain their vehicles and the road itself – whereas over-the-road freight carriers pay for their vehicles, but only a tiny fraction of the fuel taxes actually cover what it costs to maintain our highways. But I digress…
Back on the railroad, if the feds owned all of the track, the usage tax paid by the freight carriers could be apportioned to track improvement, so the system is constantly and consistently being upgraded.
In the current state, the track owners run the dispatching services. A federal network, could be run similarly to our airspace: using federal rail dispatches in local areas with common safety and communication standards. This would once again put passenger services as top priority. Along with speed improvements, freight carriers would probably not see an effective increase in trip time even if sided by a dispatcher to give right-of-way to a passenger train. The current norm is for the passenger train to be sided to give right of way to the track-owning freight carrier (even though the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1971 requires the opposite).
The current normal rail speed of 79mph is simply not good enough to lure me (and most others) away from the automobile. For a trip from St. Paul to Chicago, I can get there in 6 hours by car. Amtrak at 79mph, once you factor in all the stops, is 8hrs – if there are no additional delays. Upping the entire route to 110mph should get the train to Chicago in just under 6 hours… plus I could read, eat, and otherwise relax the whole way. Now there’s a good argument to consider my options.
Now let’s consider the automobile. They are becoming more efficient, and if we all drove Priuses we might achieve a higher efficiency than a train, but probably not on a long freeway haul like the St. Paul to Chicago example. One thing that is definitely not increasing is maximum freeway speed. Even with improvements in vehicle crash safety I don’t think I will see an increase in freeway speed beyond 75-80mph in my lifetime. Until driverless cars become the norm, there are just too many safety factors to consider. Trains on the other hand can be made safe to operate well above these speeds. Through the magic of right-of-way, they can be made to have very regular, predictable schedules as well.
We once had the greatest railroad network in the world, but the current owners are satisfied with the status-quo. It’s about time we recognize the opportunity we have to raise the bar, give travelers an option to ride on what can again become the greatest rail network in the world.
Let’s take a moment and look at two political philosophies and how they can even be applied to something as simple and mundane as a road (re)design. It may seem like somewhat of a reach, but stay with me for a story of regulation vs. self-regulation.
Alan Greenspan himself did not foresee the housing crash coming. His mantra had always been that the market should (and will) self-regulate. He may have, at one point during the crisis, re-considered his libertarian ideals, as the situation left him “in a state of shocked disbelief.”
I saw Alan Greenspan on Charlie Rose (relevant conversation at 51:16) where he discussed the 2008 mortgage crisis. I suspect that in the aftermath he did some research going backwards to see what could have been done to prevent it. He mentioned a change at the NYSE in 1970 that allowed broker-dealers to become incorporated. Prior to this, broker-dealers were required to be partnerships where all partners had “skin in the game.”
Greenspan postures that the partnerships inherently caused all partners involved to look closely at each investment to carefully assess the risk. In a partnership, losses meant a loss to their customers, a personal loss to his or herself as a partner, and all other partners involved. Needless to say, lending was done much more carefully. Voilà, some self-regulation that we sorely need today.
Admittedly, Greenspan is “frequently blamed for having set the stage for the recent crisis.” You still have to admire the guy for sticking to his libertarian guns, citing a law change (albeit in hindsight) which removed self-regulation decades ago.
In Road Design
What does any of this have to do with road design? Everything…
The Democrat: Regulate
Conventional wisdom leads many to believe that that you don’t need to change a street physically to make it safer – even if it has a record of poor safety. Instead, just add further regulation to the mix.
I’ve heard these complaints in person, during a road redesign proposal by Anoka County for Osborne Road. Citizens questioned the road redesign, even if it was just re-striping – not major construction. They insisted that for the safety of the kids crossing the 4-lane road to get to school, all that was needed is more police enforcement to set the tone.
Police can’t do traffic enforcement 24/7, so another way to regulate is with speed cameras. But some studies have argued in certain cases that the safety effects of cameras have proven to be statistically insignificant. I’m not saying that the cameras definitely won’t make the street safer. My concern is that the cost to install, maintain, and operate cameras is expensive, and we can do something cheaper and easier to provide safety.
The Libertarian: Self-Enforcement
Why not instead undo a little bit of what we’ve done with our infrastructure. It may seem counter-intuitive, but we can make things simpler, more cost effective, and more self-regulating…
First the road geometry can be changed to what is appropriate for the target speed. The current road design standard has wide lanes to give drivers a wide berth so they can make corrections before potentially causing a crash.
The roads have an extra-wide “clear zone” on either side – wide shoulders followed by an open area of grass free of “fixed objects” such as trees. This is to provide a margin of safety, but in reality the extra space simply makes the road feel faster. Probably because we’ve given many of our roads the same geometry as a highway.
We need to narrow the lanes and make the roadway feel “closer” in the cases where a slower speed is desired. Some studies have shown speed reductions of as much as 3MPH for every foot of lane narrowing. Let’s get rid of the highway geometries on 30MPH roads.
Then to really enforce the speed, reduce the travel lanes to one in each direction – prudent drivers will regulate those who speed. There are other safety issues that lane reduction solves, such as when one driver stops, but then other drivers try to pass in the other lane and don’t see the pedestrian until it’s too late. You can see the reverse effect on a road-widening, changing from 2-lanes to 4. Notice how the increases in through-put and travel time are marginal, but the injury and damage rate skyrocketed:
Stay safe out there everyone. Hopefully you can see a new perspective on an old problem. As Chuck says, keep doing what you can to build Strong Towns.