When it comes to moving large numbers of people efficiently over relatively short distances nothing beats rail transportation. It is common these days to hear arguements that rail is too expensive, and that it cannot exist without government subsidy. In a world where 75% of the actual cost of driving your car is paid for by government in the form of infrastructure, rail transport is a bargain considering that it typically operates with 40% to 60% subsidy!
The biggest single problem that public rail transportation faces is a lack of interest on the part of our elected officials. Most do not recognize the need. Some are outright against it. This can be traced to some degree back to voters, though most of the blame rests in the hands of our lobby system, in which monied special interests have the best access.
One possible solution would be to privatize commuter rail systems. You might ask, how would this be possible? Actually, the answer is quite simple:
Put rail transportation on an equal footing with bus and other forms of for-profit public transportation. This can be accomplished by having governments own and maintain railroad rights of way, and allowing private companies to operate the trains. Note that this is analagous to government owning the road that busses travel on, the runways that planes take-off and land from and conducting air-traffic control so that our skies are safe. Considering that it is unlikely that we will see significant reform in the current lobby system, creating a new privately funded pro-rail lobby - an enevitable result of for-profit commuter rail operations - might be the best alternative.
Rail transportation has difficulty servicing employers who are spread out across a wide area.
Employers can provide van service for their employees to and from the nearest station. In fact, in Southern California the Motion Picture studios and some other businesses do just that. This can be mandated by government or perhaps promoted using tax incentives for business.
Rail transportation is dangerous. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, and a program on CNBC examined the safety record of Light Rail and suggested that these systems are inherently dangerous. Most of the fatalities that they discussed were caused by people who ignored warning signs or who intentionally placed themselves in the path of a train. Think of the problems we would have if pedestrians and motorists were allowed on airport runways!
Generally speaking, rail accidents are few and the survival rate for passengers involved in rail accidents is high. Organizations like Operation Lifesaver and Metro North's in-school program are trying to re-educate the public on the realities of railroad crossings. More needs to be done in this area. More can be done in this area.
Trains are slow. As an example, my fifty-mile commute takes two hours door-to-door.
When you consider door-to-door travel times, my train commute averages twenty-five miles per hour. Part if the problem here is that one has to allow extra time getting to stations, etc. so that an unexpected delay doesn't result in a missed train. Actually, the commuter railroads have made significant improvements in travel times, adding express service wherever possible. In areas where the track can support it, commuter trains regularly travel at speeds of up to seventy-nine miles per hour. It is unlikely that we will see dramatic increases in train speeds in the near future. More likely we will see improvements such as the Meadowlands Transfer Station, slated to open in a year or two, that may reduce travel times by as much as fifteen minutes.
It is also important to realize that this is a matter of our perception. Many of us only drive into the City or Westchester during non-rush-hour periods and are not aware of just how slow an automobile commute is becoming.
Employers should realize that train commuters arrive at their destination refreshed, while car commuters have already expended considerable energy getting to work.