Despite the green merits and stress-free nature of train travel relative to flying or driving, Americans have been slow to abandon their "homes on wheels," and seem content to tolerate an increasingly unpleasant air travel experience. Not that we should have any illusions about the magnificence of Amtrak's underfunded service, which is slow, rickety and prone to delays compared to trains in Europe or Japan. Still, Amtrak has its fans, and this writer is certainly of the opinion that increased ridership would mean better cities, cleaner air and, if the laws of economics hold true, increased funding. Supporters of this scenario would agree that the best way to increase ridership isn't for a train to run out of fuel eight miles from a station, which is precisely what happened last week to a Pacific Surfliner train going from San Diego to Santa Barbara.What's worse, passengers had to spend two hours on the train before they were finally told that they could get off, provided that someone could pick them up! The rest of the passengers were forced to wait for a freight train that would push the Surfliner train to a point where it could be re-fueled.
Then, five days after this incident, 100 people were injured, 5 of them seriously, in a crash in Chicago between an Amtrak train and a freight train. Fortunately, the train was only traveling at 15 to 20 m.p.h., or else the results would most certainly have been catastrophic.
We all know that America is in desperate need of an efficient, safe and reliable transportation system. Clearly, Amtrak needs to play an important role in providing mobility both within and between cities. With imagination and funding, we can achieve that goal. These incidents shouldn't turn us off to train travel (after all, 40,000 people in the U.S. die every year from car crashes alone, and flights are often delayed or canceled altogether). Rather, we should be outraged that we haven't prioritized our rail system and made it into one of the world's best. In many ways, trains are symbols of the Industrial Revolution. What we need now is to push for a system of trains in the U.S. that can become symbols of a resurgent America, one that takes the lead in green cities, technologies and jobs, and becomes part of the solution to, rather than the cause of, global climate change.