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Saturday, September 15, 2007

The commons doesn’t have to be a tragedy

We were driven to the train station by my wonderful in-laws (a privilege, as they seldom drive any more), and made our way onto the Amtrak Surfliner, expecting to get home around three o’clock the next day, i.e. two hours late.

Didn’t happen. We got home about seven. So, five hours late both ways. What did happen? A. there was a freight derailment that took two days to clean up. B. Another suicide, this time in front of the Coast Starlight previous to our own). These incidents, besides the desultory and endless track repair work being done on Union Pacific rails, good enough to keep freight moving, but often not good enough for passenger trains, which need to be able to do eighty miles an hour sometimes in order to meet schedules, put all the dispatching in disarray, leaving us stranded for hours at a time between boring weed-infested embankments -- and the weeds were spindly from repeated doses of Roundup, and therefore not at all pretty.

We were bracketed the whole way by screaming infants whose mothers seemed not to have gone to infant-care school (and all the babies were going to Seattle), and the train attendants seemed to have shorter and shorter fuses as we crept through the night.

But there were pluses.

For one thing, the Santa Barbara shore from the train is a once-in-a-lifetime treat; I would brave the horrors of much worse trains to see it. On this trip there were many dolphins and a few whales as a spectacular bonus.

"Look! Whales!"

The area around Mount Shasta is all it’s cracked up to be in the brochures.

Going north from Dunsmuir to Klamath Falls

The Willamette Pass and the gorge of Salt Creek (The Middle Fork of the Willamette doesn’t turn up until you are almost in the valley) is one of the truly great mountain railroad vistas on the planet.

Why can’t this journey be as unstressed as most other Amtrak routes, such as the (horribly named) Empire Builder, where they apologize for pulling into your destination five minutes after the posted schedule?

Well, there are social, political and economic issues. Engineering ones, too, but those could be managed with a little foresight.

Socially, we’re ill adapted to train travel in this country. We’re rude to our passenger trains and their passengers by diving under them with our expensive cars whenever we’re crossed in love, but I’ll leave that for another post.

I’m thinking about the politics and how it’s been driven by the needs of large corporations, but while noting the pressure from the corporations in their ubiquitous promotion of advertising/consumer culture, we have to remember that what they are pandering to is a focus on self that comes natural to human beings. We’ve, as a people and as individuals, earned our overstuffed Wal-Marts.

Consumer Choices Destroy Downtowns and Family Wages could be a title, on the model of “guns don’t kill people, people do.” I’m acknowledging there is some truth to that...

Our collective obesity, to give but one instance, is an outward sign of an ongoing illness that has no end in sight.

This is the point at which my progressivist friends who believe in spiritual evolution may say, “but...” Unh-unh. There is no such thing as a free lunch. And human nature is to spend nearly all of our time looking for a free lunch. (the large corporations know this; and this to some extent why there are large corporations).

This is known, over on the right, as “the tragedy of the commons” and is used as a basis for much head-nodding over the mutilated body of the commons as the pie is divided up by corporatist CEOs and their cronies. Conservatism this is not. But I’m starting to digress. More about that another time, God willing and the crick don’t rise. Or maybe I’ll try to do it all here, this once; have patience, though. It all takes time to say.

Suffice it to say, right now, that people are a mess and Amtrak, especially in the far west, gets to be an expression of that mess. We want whatever we want, such as to get from point A to point B, now, not tomorrow, and without screaming, toy-throwing, mother-punching, mother-punched babies.

So we go by car (much more resource consuming per capita) and skip the babies, or by plane, putting up with the screaming but for much less time (but again consuming, relatively massive amounts of planetary capital).

And here my other friends (how is it I have so many of these? I’m a bleeding heart, fer crying out loud. have they no taste?) will say, perhaps: Well, you worked hard, you’ve earned the privacy and the speed because you can afford it.

But the middle/upper class privilege game has its limitations too. On a finite, crowded earth, when I travel (and this includes travel by train, and, yes, I’m aware that I’m a hairsplitting white liberal -- so sue me -- ) I take from others. Some of whom might fit the “well, they were lazier, that’s why you have and they are the have nots” argument.

But not very many. The moms with the screaming babies on the train, for example, didn’t have much of a clue (in my all-judging view) but they both had labored mightily (one overhears these things) for minimum wage at two jobs at a time for years and had little prospect of more. Some of that is race and gender barriers, along with the stigma that STILL attaches to single moms. Yes, Virginia, racial and feminist analysis does have some valid things to say.

And even dolphins and whales could have better water and air prospects than they’re getting right now. I'm, just all for that. I just am.

The commons doesn’t have to be a tragedy. But there’s that digression, almost, again.


The discretionary dollars have, for decades now, stayed away from trains, and the corporatists, who make better short-term money on freight, trucking and auto infrastructure, cars, gasoline sold to individuals, airports and their attendant hotel and ground transport industries, aircraft, and jet fuel than they do on trains, and blame the discretionary dollars for it, thus driving both discretionary and indiscretionary dollars to themselves, and to be sure all this is self-fulfilling, lobby Federal, state, and local governments to keep it that way.

It’s not a deliberate conspiracy, except on the part of a relatively few particularly astute pirates, but the effect is the same. Pay attention, now: where self-interest is assumed to be the greater good, social, economic and political practice tends to feed on that assumption, draining the public good to the eventual detriment of that self-interest.

Again? Okay. Where self-interest is assumed to be the greater good, social, economic and political practice tends to feed on that assumption, draining the public good to the eventual detriment of that self-interest.

This is why Amtrak seems to perform poorly overall, and more poorly on the West Coast than throughout the system (partly because the Union Pacific is rather hostile to Amtrak and partly because U.P. has let its infrastructure fall into disarray through corporatist raids on the till).
But we’re going to need the trains. They use much less oil than planes and cars, and, leaving aside for the moment arguments about global warming (where I do think my “side” has the edge), the stuff just went to eighty dollars a barrel and this is a trend that will continue, as the flow of blood in the Near East attests.

Trains are also more easily converted to electricity. Electricity does not HAVE to run on coal, which is pretty much irredeemable stuff from all angles.

Trains can run fast. The tracks we have now were not given to us by God, as tracks in Europe and Asia make very clear.

There’s a need. And the inaction re that need is generally expressed as “market forces.”

So, what exactly is at issue here?

Where there is a need, but market forces do not adequately address the need, create a government and pay taxes.

SOME things, that’s how you do it. You nationalize the rails you need to have passenger traffic, or, if that’s too distasteful, you build a national system without harassing the private entities for access to their dilapidated resource. Hire them to build it, if you wish, but build it and maintain it and don’t take “big government can’t run a business” as an answer.

Because, well, it just isn’t. Our fire stations are expensive and don’t turn a profit so we don’t turn them over to private industry (no money in it and they might insist on putting out only the fires they can make money on). So we maintain them with tax dollars.

It’s not business. It’s service. You could run it cheaper -- no one really needs to make sixty thousand dollars a year running a train (but no one really needs sixty thousand dollars a year -- to live with food, a roof, and education and health care for the kids -- in the first place, for providing a SERVICE, mister CEO). But there’s no requirement that the results be shoddy.

I’ve seen good government-run trains. On-time trains. Clean trains. Without seat assignment right by the screamers. Tax supported.

All it takes is the will, in the community, that the commons shall not be raided for short-term profit ... Elect the representatives, make the laws, close the loopholes, assess the taxes, build the system, keep it as simple as you can, and pay a family wage to keep it running on time and clean.

If you can do it with firehouses you can do it with trains. Yes, really you can.


And oh, hey -- market forces: Eighty dollars a barrel? Ridership is up. Way up. And Amtrak is hiring.



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