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The thing about trains

by Klaus

Before I talk about my vision for trains in the future I’d better provide some random facts about my train background:

My dad introduced me to the world of cars and planes when I was little. We had the according magazines in the house, went to air shows and car races.

I also had a little Maerklin HO train set that got slightly bigger at each Christmas. My dad had a historic Maerklin O gauge set from the early 1900’s but we lost that when we were broke and it was sold to a collector. 

Since I was little I was always fascinated by the design and engineering aspects of all these things on wheels (with or without wings).

The neighbors of my grandparents were true train people. They never even possessed a car. The dad was a guide with the German Railway aka Deutsche Bahn. He also had a model train setup that stretched across a good part of their top floor.

I used take the train to work when I lived in Darmstadt and worked in Frankfurt. I once feel asleep on the way home and woke up in France :)

I enjoy the bullet trains in Europe (ICE and TGV).

I visit transportation museums wherever I go and have seen many of the most iconic trains and engines.

I recently came across some stats about the dismal impact of flying that I covered in this post. I’ve lived in the US since 1997 and follow the debate about improving our railroad system (passenger and cargo trains).

We once had a pretty flourishing passenger train network that could compete with other systems around the world in terms of speed and technology. The most popular “streamliner” trains were booked out in advance for months in their heydays. Passenger numbers began to drop in the early sixties and by the end of that decade many passenger lines stopped operating due to the lack of passengers and rising costs. Air transportation simply took over once the proper planes were developed.

I’m arguing that we ought to change directions and prioritize train transportation over air travel for the vast majority of domestic travel with the exception of the longest coast to coast routes. You might think I’m nuts but let me make my case.

1. The true cost of flying is much higher than what we currently pay. Jet fuel is not properly taxed, CO2 emission certificates are not priced in. If the true environmental impact would be considered those ticket prices should rise to a level that will shift travelers’ behaviors.

2. The majority of the current railway system is not suited for high speed trains. We’d have to take a page out of China’s playbook and blanket the country with a network of tracks that support trains running at speed of 200 mph or more. Yes, this will cost a hefty sum of money that we don’t have. We’ll have to shift priorities away from other areas to make room for that. We made the commitment to send a man to the moon and put 400,000 people to work for a decade. I’d foresee a similar national effort for this project.

4. Yes we’d need tunnels, bridges and use imminent domain to acquire the land necessary to build the tracks. This could only be done with a broad consensus that this is the right thing to do. Not if we have a strong lobby trying to convince our citizens that using public transportation is “un-American”. 

5. These trains should run on electric power or even using hydrogen fuel cells. The power could be generated from renewable resources. Even a conventional diesel train could be over 90% more efficient in transporting passengers vs cars or panes. Modern technology might bring that factor close to 100%. 

6. Yes, it’s a very different kid of traveling. You often start in the middle of city and end in the center of another city, unlike flying to an airport 30-40 minutes away from your destination. Still traveling will take more time once you go past a distance of 500-700 miles. I’m suggesting that a different approach towards time spending on a train vs. on a plane is warranted. 

The trains should feel leisurely, you get to observe your surroundings and make more connection with fellow passengers. One could travel more in style and make the journey a pleasant part of their trip. I’d imagine a comeback of sleeper cars that would allow me to board a train at night, settle in, catch a good night sleep and arrive well rested at my destination the next morning. A 12-hours trip at an average of 150 mph could cover 1800 miles and get most people to most destinations in the country.

I could go on but you might begin to get my point. How can a country that can hardly agree on anything these days come together and say: “this is the right thing to do”?

This will require a ton of prep work. Unless the sentiment is there we will stay stuck in our unsustainable travel patterns of today.

I don’t see trains as a the solution to all our transportation problems. But they could very well be the core element in a mix including the use of bicycles, autonomous vehicles, drones and the good old traditional cars and aircraft as well.

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