"It never gets any easier. You just go faster." ---Greg Lemond
"Don't buy upgrades. Ride up grades." --- Eddy Merckx
"You drive like shit." ---The Car Whisperer

23.4.08

Get over the Hump Day

My father has been working for the regional arm of a major airline for a few years now. And it looks as though a merger is now imminent and he will likely be losing his job as of mid-summer. Yet, unemployment and the economy is not my issue. It’s that the airline industry is dying. Car-culture is dying. Suburbia is dying. And we’re doing nothing to stop a major transportation crisis.

It’s incredibly ironic and prophetic that author Jim Kunstler (of the article linked above) refers to the rail service between Minneapolis and Seattle as “pokey and slow”. Do any of you know what the original name of this line is? It is “The Empire Builder.” Think about that for a minute. That has relevance far beyond those two cities. Let’s set aside for a minute the circumstances of the clash of civilizations that preceded this, and focus on the fact that the railroads were what made this country whole.

In a span of less than 60 years the United States went from a backwater, backwoods, inefficient, uncultured society to a global power. And the ability to bring all of its self-contained natural resources to bear, from coal to oil to wheat to people, through its railways, was the catalyst for all of it.

And the free-market system that arose to such heights on the flatcars, in the boxcars, and in passenger cabins, traveling on the thousands of miles wood, iron, and gravel, stained with sweat and blood, soon outgrew its industrial roots. It eschewed the rail system as egalitarian and beneath a society of such wealth, plenteousness, and opulence.

Oil was cheap. The technology was there. The people demanded it.

With this shift our rails and city centers fell into disrepair, as suburbia, highways and airports alike sprawled out of control.

It was “nice” while it lasted.

Once, a $100 barrel of oil was unthinkable. We’ll see $150 before summer is out. Procuring a stable supply is draining our treasury, and driving inflation skyward and the dollar's value to the basement. Spending $800 a month on gas is a reality for many people.

Meanwhile, as it takes us almost 2 hours to get from Milwaukee to Chicago by train, every month France and Japan are setting new land speed records on their high-speed commuter rail lines.

Our answer is still planes and cars, and we are headed towards disaster. All it takes is one look at the news on a daily basis to see the death throes of the airline industry on display for all to see.

They are bleeding money. Last month, four airlines went under, 4 more are possibly merging, and American Airlines may be out of business - the second largest airline in the world! – by the end of the year. My father told me two weeks ago the current fuel cost for a 777 airliner to make a one way trip from New York to New Delhi, India is over $470,000. The airlines simply don’t have the cash to fill their tanks on a regular basis, and even the largest are now operating week-to-week. And as the price of oil is indicating, demand is stretched to its limit.

They need to increase prices as much as 20% by one estimate just make ends meet. And with the economy and dollar going in the opposite direction, more expensive airline tickets with smaller seats, no amenities, and hours of waiting, customers won't be flying anywhere.

Highway infrastucture is crumbling and unable to keep up with increasing congestion. The needs are clear. Soon, a major part of our country's power and resources, it's people, will be unable to travel as freely, or at all, as they have for over 100 years.

Yet our railways rot. Amtrak trains don't even have right of way on the few routes they do run. Chicago's own CTA has more slow zones than an Old Country Buffet line. Yet we continue to raise new taxes to prop up this outmoded infrastructure, while subsidizing highways and air travel, instead of investing that money into real change and a state-of-the-art, integrated rail system.

It's time for the old attitudes toward public transportation to die. It's no longer a matter for just the social conscious and the societally immobile. Stop the socialism-baiting.

What's that? You say, why haven't the airlines been investing more , if any, into alternative modes of transportation to survive in a changing marketplace? That they should've seen coming years ago in 1991 with the first Gulf War? How the airlines and the auto industry missed this opportunity to save themselves I will never know. How you could be at the top of such a huge industry and be a part of such powerful networking and not see this coming is beyond me.

A catastrophe is imminent. I give affordable, domestic air travel in the United States 5 more years. And those adjectives will be on a sliding scale downward over that time. By then, gas will be at least $6 a gallon and it will take far longer to upgrade our nation's rail system to a capacity level that we currently accustomed to, and forget about the airlines and the auto industry leading the charge. They don't have the cash reserves on hand to initiate the change and ensure a smooth transfer for their business model in time. Only one seems to have seen the opportunity in time and gotten on board.

5 comments:

Matt said...

Yup --

I bitched about this, to a less-intelligent extent, after my trip to Paris last Thanksgiving.

The city and regional public transportation options were amazing. It's ridiculous to me that the U.S. continues to ignore it's crumbling transportation infastructure.

Traffic congestion? "Yuk yuk, let's build more lanes!"

Steven Vance said...

Thank you for putting into words what I was thinking. I would have written out my thoughts and come to the same conclusions, but I would have discussed more about how creating this new passenger railroad industry will save our economy.

It can be done in 3 easy steps:
-Solve nuclear waste storage issues
-Stop the war
-Use money saved from diverting from defense to local spending to build trains. Lots of them.

Enjoy once again a growing economy with more jobs than there are people.

The Car Whisperer said...

Step 1. Steal the Underpants!
Step 2.
Step 3. Profits!

Not to make fun, and I am for nuclear energy as the logical step to get us away from fossil fuels, but solving the nuclear waste storage issue AND dealing with the "NIMBYs" (Not In My Backyarders) is obviously harder than saying we need to.

pc said...

the trouble is that rail is incredibly capital intensive -- far more so than even airlines, whose huge capex costs weigh down their balance sheets. even in France and Japan, where people live much more densely (due in no small part to subsidies for small farms) and are accustomed to paying much more for travel, new high-speed lines are still underwritten by government subsidies. of course, "bullet trains to nowhere" are a way of life for Japan's ruling LDP and its crony contractor pals.

The Car Whisperer said...

Interesting point...my response would be that
a) rails have far less enviromental impact (especially electric)

b)intial capital is expensive yes, but maintanence on rail would have far better returns per passenger, if the initial line had been maintained this entire time instead of letting them fall into such disrepair.

And now such a need for massive injections of captial to get them to the point where they could at least be a substitute for regional travel is blinding us from the issue that regional airtravel is going to totally unsustainable in five years and we have no substitute plan in place.