Sunday, November 21, 2010


My friend John Shuck has blogged about Peak Oil quite a bit over the past few months. I discovered yesterday that it pays to ignore the issue in the short term.

My sister invited us to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family. We live in Philadelphia and she lives in Northern Virginia. I looked into public transportation, admittedly because I didn't feel like driving four hours each way. I discovered that those who use public transportation between cities are punished.

Here in the Northeast Corridor Amtrak has many trains. One leaves Philadelphia and Washington about every hour each day. It would take less time to go from my house to my sister's on the train and I could sleep or read on the way. The problem is that there is a significant cost to using Amtrak. Given the distance and the miles per gallon that my trusty eleven year old Jeep achieves it will cost about $75.00 for the gas to drive round trip. If we take Amtrak it will cost almost $350.00. And that's just for my wife and me. We simply cannot afford to save energy and take the train.

I also checked flying and discovered it would us cost a twice as much to fly than it would to take the train.  And to fly from Philadelphia to Washington almost every airline requires that one fly to Atlanta from Philadelphia and then to Washington. Talk about a waste of fossil fuels!  Further, we could fly to California and celebrate Thanksgiving with my parents for the same price! There are nonstop flights between Philadelphia and Washington.  They cost over $900.00 per person.  And yes, I check Greyhound.  You can't get there from here.

Since the U.S. government owns Amtrak it could supplement public transportation. It chooses not to do so. Frankly it pays to drive. There has been some talk about placing a significant tax on gasoline and using the moneys from that tax to fund public transportation. The tax, the argument goes, would encourage people to use public transportation. The problem with this idea is that it places a significant burden on the poor. As people seek (if they do so) to buy more fuel efficient cars or even to move to electric cars those who cannot afford new cars will be stuck with their old gas guzzlers as the price of gasoline rises. And in many parts of America there simply is no adequate public transportation. Once you get out of the cities (and frankly some cities have very poor public transportation) there is no way to get from one place to another without driving.

The sad thing about all of this is that as recently as the mid 1940s there was a fairly adequate public transportation system between cities and within cities in America. As the American love of cars grew and those who could moved to the suburbs the infrastructure of public transportation was allowed to decay in many cities and between cities.

We who live in Philadelphia are fortunate. Public transportation may take more time and frankly costs more unless you are driving downtown and have to pay for parking but you can get just about anywhere in Philadelphia by train, bus or trolley. This is simply no longer true in too many cities and is practically non existent or costs way too much between cities.

So I learned yesterday that the Federal government wants me to drive instead of taking public transportation between my house and my sister's. And that is a tragedy.

A small correction thanks to Jim Loomis:

"Small detail: The government does not own Amtrak. It's a private corporation that is subsidized by the government."

Jim and I agree that Amtrak is not subsidized enough.  I would add a couple things:

1. That rider load does affect price: the less riders the less effective rail travel is as a cost of fuel; and
2. That routes have been cut so that less interuban rail is available.  THERE IS NO MORE BROADWAY LIMITED!  That means to take the train from NYC to Chicago you now have to go either to Pittsburgh or D.C. and wait for another train to get to Chicago.  One more incentive to NOT take the train.


John Shuck said...

Thanks for the link, Bob, and for this post. You are exactly right. It is a tragedy. Jim Kunstler calls our car-obsessed suburban project the greatest mis-allocation of resources in human history. We could have done (and still can do) better. Happy Thanksgiving though!

JIM LOOMIS said...

Small detail: The government does not own Amtrak. It's a private corporation that is subsidized by the government. That said, you're absolutely right about the need to change our car culture and rail is the way to go and the Europeans have had that figured out for years. Every form of public transportation is subsuidized in this country - from the airlines to sidewalks - yet the political right goes nuts when it comes to taxpayer support of rail. Makes no sense.

Pastor Bob said...

Another thought: a law that would require all new houses in areas that get more a certain amount of days of sun a year be required to have full roof solar panels. Government subsidies would be provided to those who earn less than a determined amount so that the price of the house would not rise because of the solar panels. For that matter subsidize solar panels on older houses in the same areas.

And the piece de resistance: hook those houses up to the power grid. If the panels make more electricity than is required in the house the excess power from those houses that are subsidized will go on the grid for free for a certain number of years.

Pastor Bob said...

Thanks John. You know there is a great irony about this, at least here in Philadelphia. When rail lines first came into regular use here in Philly the very rich built summer homes out of town along the rail lines. Later they moved completely out of town and took the train to work. Thus the term "the Mainline" was born here in Philadelphia. You lived on the Mainline if you lived in one of those rich communities where those homes were first built.

Thus the very first suburbs were born. And later it wasn't just the rich. In the early 1900s my great grandfather took the train to work from a NJ suburb to NYC. Trains began suburbs both here and in England! Curious, isn't it?