This Train Is Bound for Glory
The concrete platform vibrated subtly as the train entered Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. I gathered my luggage, checked my ticket, and prepared to board the southbound train to North Carolina to visit my family, like I do every Christmas. As the train approached, I felt a childlike and quasi-transcendent excitement. My heart always responds with joy and eagerness to trains approaching. My sense of self is expanded beyond personal limits, spread out across the distances I might travel and the people I might meet.
I first fell in love with trains and public transit more broadly speaking when I studied abroad in Germany during my junior year of college. Everything was suffused with Romantic bluster—me on a train heading to Berlin or Prague or Krakow with my journal and some classic of European literature—and I felt the weight of history everywhere around me. I watched the countrysides and cityscapes flash by as I wrote naively self-important entries in my journal and scribbled notes for novels that would never reach completion.
But there is more to trains than the Romantic fantasies of a blissfully ignorant boy from Kentucky seeing the world for the first time. Public transit can be instrumental in solving many of our economic, environmental, and even cultural problems.
The first thing to consider when looking at the economics of public transit is that it creates jobs that cannot be outsourced. The ticket inspector, the train conductor or bus driver, the repair crews for the railways, the mechanics who perform regular repairs and safety checks, and the staff at train stations and bus depots are all employees that must be physically located in the United States and, more specifically, in their home regions and cities. But it is not just that these are stable jobs with government benefits that will improve the lives of these workers directly. A recent study shows that investing in local public transit has a noticeably positive effect on the local economy overall. According to the American Public Transportation Association, every tax dollar invested in passenger trains yields nearly four dollars in local economic growth.
And the economic gains don’t stop there. In terms of alleviating the disadvantages that come with income inequality, public transit can be helpful as well. Champaign-Urbana, IL, offers a year-long pass with unlimited rides on the city buses for only $70, an amount a worker might pay in a single week if dependent on taxis or Uber. Chapel Hill, NC, offers bus service for free, thus eliminating any financial burden for poor workers needing to get to work. This means that workers who can’t afford a car or can’t drive a car due to a disability or illness can still hold a job and earn an income.
And it’s not just the poor who can benefit here. According to The Transit Savings Report, a monthly analysis produced by the American Public Transportation Association, public transit can save users an average of $764 per month, or about $9,167 a year. With the middle class getting hit right, left, and center with increasing college tuition, decreasing or stagnating wages, and ever-increasing economic precariousness, these savings are not merely nominal but necessary.
Congestion alone costs us billions of dollars per year. According to a recent US News & World Report article: “The cost of congestion to the average auto commuter was $960 in lost time and fuel in 2014, compared to an inflation-adjusted $400 in 1982.” And overall costs nationwide are expected to balloon: “In the next five years, the annual delay per commuter would grow from 42 to 47 hours, the total delay nationwide would grow from 6.9 billion hours to 8.3 billion hours, and the total cost of congestion would jump from $160 billion to $192 billion, researchers estimated.”
Even if we ignore the predictions for growth in cost, we’re still looking at $160 billion dollars a year wasted nationwide due to traffic congestion. By using trains and high-speed rails, not only can we vastly reduce fuel waste, passengers can complete minor work tasks during the time spent on the train, if they so choose, thus reducing wasted time. I know that personally some of my most productive hours have been spent in trains. During various train trips over the past handful of years, I wrote nearly a third of my doctoral dissertation, read hundreds of pages for pleasure or for work, and graded dozens of student papers. None of this could have occurred had I been driving a car, an activity that precludes nearly all other productive efforts.
But we have to think about more than economics when determining public policy. In many ways, the most pressing matter facing us as a species is the environment, since if we don’t reverse our policies that are destroying the planet we rely on for nourishment and breathable air, we won’t have the opportunity to solve any of the other problems that face us. Here again, public transit can help. Trains are 17% more efficient as a means of travel than airplanes and 34% more efficient than cars—and that’s in the current state American trains are in. If we were to modernize all of our passenger trains and invest in new technologies to improve fuel efficiency, while also increasing the number of people who rely on trains as their primary mode of commuter and long-distance travel, the positive impact on our environment could be colossal.
Inter-city travel is not the only area where public transit is more efficient. Bus travel within cities is considerably more environmentally friendly than car travel. What’s more, there have been great strides made in biodiesel and hybrid buses that are even more fuel efficient than regular buses. A recent study shows that there is no decline in performance of biodiesel buses, yet literally every pollutant is reduced in quantity when the switch to biodiesel is made.
It should also be mentioned that both liberals and conservatives in this country regularly use the catch-phrase “energy independence.” I by no means believe that public transit, including electric trains and biodiesel buses, can allow us to achieve complete energy independence, but by reducing our need for petroleum energy sources, we can make great strides not only in protecting our environment but also in reducing our need to purchase oil from countries in the Middle East. And since liberals, moderates, and conservatives alike agree that energy independence is desirable, this could be a major selling point for increased public transit.
On a less idealized note, I have noticed interesting differences region to region in regard to the race and economic status of those who make use of public transit. In the Northeast and Midwest, you will find people of all races and socioeconomic strata riding city buses and regional trains. In the South, where there are much fewer public transit options, the customers for public transit are almost entirely poor and largely people of color. The view of public transit as something only poor people use, and something even to be ashamed of using, can be found everywhere in the country, but it is certainly more pronounced in the South. (Having never used public transit in the Southwest or the West, I can’t speak to those regions, but we need to battle this perception everywhere, if we’re going to change out nation’s policies vis-à-vis public transit.)
In effect, public transit could prove to be a place of commingling among various sectors of society—a laboratory of desegregation, a mobile melting pot of the sort our country often speaks of and rarely works to promote.
I don’t expect everyone to fall in love with trains the way I have or to share my perhaps ridiculously Romanticized notions about them. I do, however, believe we can change Americans’ attitudes toward public transit in terms of general associations with trains and buses, as well as in terms of practical decision-making.
And the popularity of Amtrak has increased notably since the 2008 economic crisis. Take Alabama for example. In 2008, the National Association of Railroad Passengers reported 47,399 passengers in the state. In 2010 that number had grown to 62,737, and in 2014 the number was 62,426. This represents a 32% increase in passengers that has remained steady, and this number is even more striking given that Alabama is generally ranked rather poorly in terms of its public transportation. And we saw similar increases across the nation. In Ohio the increase from 2008 to 2014 was 119,000 to 152,000. In Illinois the number increased from 4,295,300 to 4,883,900—meaning that over half a million more passengers rode Amtrak in 2014 than in 2008. In Pennsylvania a quarter million more passengers used Amtrak in 2014 than in 2008. I won’t enumerate each state’s increases, but suffice to say that these increases have occurred across the United States and have remained steady over the past half-decade. It is therefore irrefutable that we are seeing greater demand for public transportation in this country; all that remains is to muster the political willpower to make it more widely available and more affordable.
But while the facts and statistics are overwhelming in favor of public transit, numerical data can often feel bloodless and alienating. I began this essay by relating my personal introduction to trains and my emotional responses to them. Cognitive psychology teaches us that we most often have an emotional response to something and then devise rational arguments to support that more immediate emotional response. When I first fell in love with trains and travel in general, I didn’t know any of the statistics I’ve listed here. I looked those up later.
I am not suggesting that we never make rational decisions based on data. We certainly do, and our policy-makers certainly should. Educating people about the advantages of public transit will have a positive impact on our nation’s policies in this regard, and simply creating a wider debate about public transit will serve to raise awareness on the issues surrounding it. But we can’t stop there. We have to show the joys of crossing the country by train, the personal pleasures of being able to sit back and read that great novel you’ve been meaning to get to instead of having your attention take up by driving for several hours, and so forth.
Here are five suggestions for programs that could increase the popularity and efficiency of public transit:
1) We need to instate a lottery-style program that gives away a dozen free month-long passes on Amtrak each month. Anyone signed up for Amtrak’s Rewards Program would be instantly eligible and randomly chosen. This would offer incentive to sign up for the Rewards program and it would increase train travel as well as create the opportunity for people to explore the possibilities of extended train travel.
2) Even though Amtrak’s writer-in-residence program has had its issues, this sort of program is precisely what we need. We must clarify and correct the issues that occurred with the inaugural group of writers, but that should be easy enough, and all programs have issues early on. What if we included other programs as well? Student scholarships for educational trips over spring break or tickets for law students wanting to participate in a presidential primary of their choice (tickets split equally between registered Democrats, Independents/third-parties, and Republicans) are two ideas that come immediately to mind, but tickets supporting education and professionalization of many varieties could be easily devised.
3) A family vacation discount program could not only increase the number of current passengers but also go a long way toward creating those sorts of lifelong memories in younger generations of Americans that might change the culture’s overall view of public transit as a whole. And given its focus on families, we might even be able to get Republicans on board (pun sort of intended) for the program.
4) For local buses, we can create programs that link into welfare. Republicans and Democrats alike talk about welfare-to-work programs. What if we guaranteed that welfare unemployment recipients had free transportation to make it to job interviews and then to make it to their new jobs after receiving them? I would suggest free passes during the entire time on these programs and then for two years after receiving gainful employment, thus allowing time for workers to get on their feet and either purchase regular bus passes or a car, if that is what they prefer.
5) Commuter trains reduce traffic congestion, improve inter-municipal economies, and help families where perhaps the parents have to work in different cities—to name just a few of their benefits. I would propose that we do bulk-rate buying by businesses and public institutions to reduce the cost of long-term commuter passes. And this is a case where we have precedent to use municipal, state, and federal funds to build such lines.
We have to change not only our policies about public transit but also our attitudes toward it, our sense of how it can enrich our personal lives. There is no question that increased public transit offers myriad advantages for our society in terms of economic and environmental concerns, but it can also offer us many hours more leisure, more cultural opportunities, and better relations between the various demographics that make up our population. There is a host of concerns facing the United States today, and at first glance public transit might not make it near the top of that list, but resting as it does at a nexus point among several major issues, it must become a central focus of progressive and non-partisan activism.