Trains, planes and automobiles

Supporters of restoring passenger rail service to Southern Oregon will hold a community forum on the topic tonight. The obstacles are huge, but the conversation is worth having.

The United States once boasted a rail transportation system that carried people and freight across the continent and back. Over the decades, the rise of the automobile and the construction of the interstate highway system led to long years of decline. Freight still travels by railcar, and remains competitive with air freight and trucking, but the nation's rail infrastructure needs a major overhaul.

Historically, government investment in highways and air travel has dwarfed dollars put into railroads. The Council on Foreign Relations, in a report earlier this year on the U.S. rail system, noted that highways and aviation received $1 trillion more federal money than rail over the past 30 years.

Moving freight with trucks is still cost-effective despite high fuel prices because the federal government spends billions maintaining the highway system. But in terms of pure efficiency, rail still wins.

The more cargo you load on a single train, the more efficient it becomes. A loaded freight train can move a ton of freight 484 miles on a single gallon of fuel, according to the American Association of Railroads.

Trains also are a very efficient way to move people, using several times less fuel per passenger mile than cars or airplanes. But freight trains can travel slowly and still turn a profit. Passenger trains must deliver people to their destinations quickly or no one will ride. And if few people ride, the cost per passenger mile soars.

The problem is the expense of upgrading rail lines to passenger-train speeds and, in many places, building entirely new, dedicated lines so passenger trains don't have to share the tracks with slower freight trains. That would take billions of dollars — and it would have to come from taxpayers.

Local train enthusiasts are intrigued by the federal stimulus grant recently awarded to repair the rail line leading from the Rogue Valley over the Siskiyou Summit. If grants are available for freight, why not for passenger trains, they ask. It's a reasonable question.

For the reasons already listed, the $7 million grant for track improvements won't get the Siskiyou line to passenger standards. If enough money could be found — and passed by Congress — to provide efficient passenger train service through the Rogue Valley, it would still need to be subsidized by taxpayers. Even Japan's high-speed rail system relies on government support.

That's not necessarily a bad thing; the government has subsidized highways and airports for many years. But it would mean deciding to shift our focus and our money to rail travel and away from cars.

Tonight's forum begins at 7 in the Gresham Room of the Ashland library. If you are interested in exploring the possibility of passenger rail, by all means go.

Even a groundswell of public support might not be enough to see rail travel return to the Rogue Valley. But if no one raises the issue and starts the conversation, it never will.

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