July 26, 2010

Midnight Train to Cleveland

Last week I rode Amtrak back home to Ohio for the first time, inspiring me to think a bit more about this means of displacing individual vehicle transport (and commensurate petroleum consumption and greenhouse gas emissions). I normally drive or fly. Driving was not an option for me this time; as it was about 2 days’ notice, flights were $550 and up, well out of my tolerable price range. I’m no stranger to the Acela, having fallen in love with it after about a dozen many-hour delays and frequent extra-personal body and luggage inspections while taking the shuttle to and from New York in the earlier years after 9/11. I also hopped the train from Chicago to Sandusky last year, and now honestly question whether I will ever again feel motivated to drive that route with its infamous traffic.

As usual, this train ride was comfortable and had all of the normally-nice qualities of taking the train: coffee, beer and munchies for sale; people hanging out, talking, watching movies, playing cards and reading; beautiful scenery; stairwells and corridors in which to get up and walk around. When my mom was dropping me off to head home, we met a nice couple who was embarking on a full-family train-transported trip to D.C. – they were meeting with eight of their children and grandchildren in the nation’s capital, coming from Sandusky, Cleveland, and Boston. In the sight-seeing car, I also spoke to a 23-year Navy vet who was train-riding from Florida to Pittsburgh for his mom’s 89th birthday. While catching up on my reading, I overheard the two people behind me debating whether high-speed rail would make the scenic views less of a benefit to train travelers. The only setback was the somewhat inconvenient timing. Riding from D.C. to Sandusky takes about 12 hours compared to a 7 to 7.5 hour drive. Trains only leave about once per day, so my only option involved arriving in Sandusky at 4:00 a.m. and departing back to D.C. at about 1:00 a.m.

Ohio received a few hundred million in stimulus funds toward a high-speed rail system, and it is considered important for better connecting the East Coast and Chicago. (If you glance at a map of the extensive rail infrastructure that relies on Chicago as its hub, you’ll get a sense of what this could mean.) High-speed rail is also growing as a political issue for this fall’s Ohio races.

I was thinking a lot about this in terms of our current work writing a new energy security report (due out in September). If petroleum prices spike dramatically or supplies are significantly disrupted (think of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), do we have transportation infrastructure in place that could compensate and assist the normal economy in carrying on? Certainly not yet, and the debate over the benefit versus the cost of building them seems to be heating up. This is not a happy prospect for America. Current world reserve/production ratios give us less than 50 years to displace the petroleum we rely on, and that’s if we consider the remaining oil reserves to be available to us and affordable (likely not safe assumptions). In addition to simply needing a diverse bank of options for carrying out the nation’s business, not to mention making it secure, improving our rails is an important way to use transportation as a means of using and storing lower-carbon electricity, key to better integrating renewables into the grid.

With this, I encourage you all to hop a train when it’s a viable alternative to driving and flying for you. Also, I hereby dedicate this post to the Senate for shelving climate legislation until the fall. My take on this is simple: it sucks. Big time.

The Week Ahead

On Tuesday, July 27th, the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs hosts a hearing called "Climate Change Finance: Providing Assistance for Vulnerable Countries" at 2:00pm in Room 2172 of the Rayburn House Office Building.  On Wednesday, head over to the Center for Strategic and International Studies for "Science, Technology, and Innovation: Imperatives for National and Economic Security" from 8:00am to 4:00 pm; alternatively, check out "Climate Change: an Introduction" at the Environmental Law Institute at noon.  Finally, on Thursday, July 29th from 9:30 to 11:30 am, the Wilson Center will host "Paving the Way for US-China Sub-National Cooperation on Climate Action Planning" in the 5th floor conference room.