Monday, September 01, 2008

Escape to (and from) New York

A few weeks ago I traveled from Oregon to New York for the third time in the last year. This was my longest visit — a full two weeks including a brief excursion to Buffalo and Rochester for a family reunion. In Manhattan, we stayed with five friends from Geneva, Switzerland — two of whom had never been to the city before and spoke no English whatsoever. So I had the chance to practice my French and serve as an informal tour guide — an enjoyable duty, to be sure. Nearly four decades after moving away from the city, it's still a huge treat to go back.

The deterioration of New York's infrastructure has been abundantly recorded and condemned (most recently by the Times' Tom Friedman, whom I hesitate to mention in any context due to his disastrous misjudgments on other issues). So I'll confine myself to an anecdote that invites an extended comment on the state of our national transportation network.

On August 11th, we and our Swiss friends were scheduled to fly to Buffalo from JFK on separate flights. Severe thunderstorms developed that morning, as forecast, and dumped heavy rain on the NY region. At LaGuardia airport, for example, nickel-sized hail fell and winds reached 60 mph. There were tornado warnings farther out on Long Island.

Not surprisingly, a number of flights were canceled (including our friends' flight to Buffalo) or postponed. We were scheduled to leave later from JFK via JetBlue, but the flight was rescheduled three or four times. For reasons far too annoying and complicated to recount, we (like our friends) finally rented a car at the airport and drove the 450 miles to Buffalo.

The airport delays were inevitable, of course, given the fierce weather conditions. No blame there. Refugees from canceled flights roamed through JFK searching for alternatives, overwhelming the lines filled with people (like us) trying to board postponed departures. People were in tears and, at times, it looked like scuffles were about to erupt. The airlines did little, it seemed, to respond to these predictable frustrations.

In the midst of all the chaos, it occurred to me that there must be far better ways to transport large numbers of people. Many of the canceled flights on the boards were for short and medium distances: places like Boston, Washington, Richmond, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Albany and, of course, Buffalo — our destination.

And of course there is a better way: trains. In Japan, I traveled on the high-speed shinkansen system from Kyoto to Tokyo at 125 mph. Trains on a few routes that are unimpeded by Japan's typically mountainous terrain can reach 188 mph. Some 375,000 people travel on the shinkansen every day. The trains are quiet, comfortable, beautifully engineered and run on time almost without exception. A proposed maglev (magnetic levitation) version has, in tests, reached speeds of 361 mph. The shinkansen system has an impeccable safety record.

A few years ago, I also rode the French TGV (train à grande vitesse, or "train of great speed") system on the Lausanne-Paris-Geneva routes at speeds up to 200 mph. On the flat farmlands southeast of Paris, the TGV passed cars on the adjacent freeway like they were hardly moving at all. The TGV trains are even faster than the shinkansen. In 2001, a TGV traversed France from Calais to Marseille, a distance of 663 miles, in just 3 1/2 hours.

For short and medium distances, these speeds are highly competitive with air travel. Most train stations are in the centers of cities, avoiding long and often aggravating trips to and from airports. In a standard TGV, my trip to Buffalo would've only required about 2 1/2 hours.

High-speed trains are far less vulnerable to weather delays than airplanes and automobile traffic. Trains can run on electricity rather than aviation fuel, whose price has increased by 62.5% over the last year. Amtrak's engines, many of which are still diesel-powered, use only 2/3 as many BTU's per mile as cars, buses and airplanes. While the federal government subsidizes Amtrak at the rate of $40 per passenger each year (for a total of $1.4 billion in 2006), "highways are subsidized at a rate of $500–$700 per automobile."

In a rational universe, the U.S. would've invested in sytems like the shinkansen and TGV decades ago instead of defunding and neglecting Amtrak, the last vestige of a once-proud passenger rail system. The U.S. is now 31st in per capita rail miles per year, far behind other industrial and industrializing nations. Outside the northeast corridor, private automobiles account for 99.9% of all intercity passenger miles. Incredibly, cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Columbus, Tulsa, Nashville, Des Moines and Boise have no passenger rail service at all.

Not surprisingly, this year's enormous increases in the cost of oil have raised demand for rail service. Still, there is little evidence of the kind of strategic planning that produced the shinkansen, the TGV or the Transrapid maglev system that currently operates, with great efficiency, in Shanghai. Short-term thinking — the bane of the U.S. economy and political system — rules, as usual, in D.C.

[PHOTO by the author.]

No comments: