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Smart Cities and States and the Future of Rail Travel

Don Phillips is a renowned transportation reporter who has written for the Washington Post and International Herald Tribune. He will be joining our panel discussion on Wednesday evening: “Re-Discovering Rail: The Smart, Green Alternative.”

We recently read an essay Phillips wrote for the book Modern Trains and Splendid Stations: Architecture, Design, and Rail Travel in the Twenty-First Century. In it Phillips looks back on the twentieth century and identifies three “distinct eras of political decision-making about passenger rail travel” and concludes that “the history of the passenger train in the twentieth century makes a persuasive argument that it will be around at the end of the twenty-first.”

The first era was characterized by tight regulation of the railroads, which began during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. [The struggles of Penn RR president Alexander Cassatt against Roosevelt’s trustbusters is recounted in Conquering Gotham]

The second era began in the 1960s with a period of deregulation of all forms of transportation – except passenger rail:

“Congress decided in 1970 that the only way to save the passenger train was to have the government take over. But that isn’t exactly what happened. Instead, Congress created Amtrak, which was based on a lie that everyone knew was a lie: Amtrak would operate a scaled-down passenger system efficiently and start turning a profit within two years.”

“Not only has Amtrak never turned a profit, but it has also absorbed more than $23 billion in federal funds over the past thirty years, and there is no promise of a future profit. During this time, Congress forced Amtrak to run trains into the districts of politically powerful members, voicing support for Amtrak while providing only enough money to keep trains limping along. Had it not been for dedicated officers and employees who believed in the passenger train, the service would have foundered. Therefore, the second era might be called ‘the era of political lies and incompetence.'”

Phillips calls the third era “the era of smart states and cities.”

“As the federal government sank into partisan bickering, the states began making decisions on transportation policy. Governors and mayors, unlike members of Congress, can’t simply wave a magic money wand and order trains to run even if they make no sense in economic terms. At the state and local level, the politicians face real problems, and they must find real solutions. Congestion has become their number-one problem, and it seems ever clearer that the train is one of the solutions.”

He cites examples of the “smart states and cities” phenomenon in Washington state, California, and the mid-Atlantic states. Despite the dearth of federal support, the politics of congestion, economics, climate change, energy prices and other factors are enhancing the value of passenger rail projects.