James Howard Kunstler, oft derided as seeking to return America to a pre-industrial state, actually wants to return the country to the glory years of the industrial era, when the major components of our industrial infrastructure were in place and flourishing while Progressive Era reforms were making cities more habitable and humane.
This allowed us to build great cities while ameliorating problems that had overwhelmed earlier cities, such as hypercrowded tenements, which were relieved greatly by the streetcar suburbs, which allowed people of modest means to escape. The cities "sprawled" a bit, but on the whole remained quite dense and compact because they didn’t have to devote 50 percent of their surface area to the care, feeding, and storage of automobiles.
One of Kunstler’s frequent laugh/cry lines is that America once had the greatest rail system the world had ever seen; the one we have now would shame Bulgaria.
As a member of the National Association of Rail Passengers and someone who has taken the nominally 42 hour "Empire Builder" trip back-and-forth between Chicago and the Northwest numerous times, this story puts a chill on my holidays.
Set in Obama’s adopted hometown, it suggests a crying need and numerous opportunities for improvements that will require investment now, soon, and in the long-term — precisely what his team is supposedly seeking (investments that will spur spending promptly, create jobs in the near term, and build capacity in the long term).
We need to start throwing money at Amtrak with a shovel — hire more personnel to staff the trains and stations and maintain the facilities and care for people who are supporting rail travel with their money. That’s spending that can be felt in weeks.
We need a lot more rolling stock and crews to staff it. That’s spending that will begin to be felt in months with firm orders, and pay off in a few years.
And we need a lot more double tracking and electrification all over the U.S. We have got to get the U.S., if not into the 21st century, at least to the same level of rail service capacity that we had in 1908. This starts with building as much dedicated electric-rail passenger track as possible, so that we no longer have to be sidetracked for hours multiple times over the course of a journey to allow freight trains (which take priority) to pass.
The nice thing is that rail line right of ways are capable of serving as a convenient place for a new electric supergrid facilities, eliminating the NIMBYism that make siting such a nightmare for utility planners and providing a use for the distributed power generation plans we need to get off fossil fuels. (In most U.S. cities during the beginning of the electric age, the electric companies became "traction" companies, owning trolley lines because they needed a use for their power.)
There’s an oft-repeated story about the millions of dollars NASA spent trying to devise a pen that would write in zero gravity — and the simple elegance of the Soviet approach to the problem (they used pencils). In ground transport, we seem intent on repeating this mistake: we would rather spend a fortune trying to devise a complex new approach to an old problem than notice that the old solution is still valid.