Rail­way reverie

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Dana D. Kel­ley Dana D. Kel­ley is a free­lance writer from Jones­boro.

“Asome­thing in a summer’s day,” be­gins an Emily Dick­in­son poem that praises the long, lazy con­tem­pla­tion that of­ten launches and lingers in July shade.

Squint­ing against the west­ward sun in my daily drive home, and glanc­ing at the rail­road tracks par­al­lel to the high­way, I’m drawn once again to dream­ing about ru­ral rail travel in the Nat­u­ral State.

First, let’s lay a few facts on the brightly sun­lit ta­ble.

Re­mem­ber that TV com­mer­cial a few years back when gaso­line prices were high in which a freight-train com­pany boasted of mov­ing a ton of cargo 400 miles on one gal­lon of diesel fuel? It’s more than just true; it’s con­ser­va­tive. The na­tional av­er­age is around 430 miles per gal­lon, and some lines ex­ceed 500 miles. A ton is 2,000 pounds. Or roughly the weight of a dozen people.

Pas­sen­ger rail travel is 17 times safer than au­to­mo­bile travel, based on fa­tal­i­ties per bil­lion miles. A dozen people dead in one year from train wrecks is a bad year. More than 30,000 people killed in car crashes is an an­nual av­er­age.

Tex­ting and driv­ing is bad busi­ness. It’s a hor­ri­ble habit that has al­ready killed and in­jured count­less people. It’s also not go­ing away. For­get stats, just look around next time you’re in your ve­hi­cle. Or look in the mir­ror.

Arkansas is a ru­ral state, with re­gional pop­u­la­tion cen­ters serv­ing smaller com­mu­ni­ties in hub-and­spoke fash­ion. Whether north­east, north­west or cen­tral—people in lit­tle towns travel to big cities for work, health care, col­lege, shop­ping, din­ing and en­ter­tain­ment.

The mode of trans­porta­tion is al­most ex­clu­sively the au­to­mo­bile. Many roads run right along­side rail­ways.

Arkansans love their cars, or more ac­cu­rately, their trucks and SUVs. When Pop­u­lar Me­chan­ics mag­a­zine pub­lished its list of “Un­of­fi­cial State Cars” last year, the GMC Yukon pre­vailed in Arkansas, where it sells at 407 per­cent of its na­tional av­er­age.

No­body ever said au­to­mo­biles were cheap, and they aren’t. The AAA es­ti­mates the av­er­age an­nual cost of own­ing a ve­hi­cle at $8,000. With well over 2.5 mil­lion ve­hi­cle regis­tra­tions in Arkansas, dis­count­ing for com­mer­cial and pub­lic regis­tra­tions, our col­lec­tive yearly tab could still be in the $15 bil­lion range.

Mea­sured in an­nual miles driven per li­censed driver, we’re a lit­tle above the na­tional av­er­age at 15,000 per year. We criss-cross our state in two-, three­and four-hour driv­ing trips fre­quently and reg­u­larly. Foot­ball sea­son fea­tures throngs of mo­torists flock­ing to and from Fayet­teville, Lit­tle Rock and Jones­boro.

Many people make weekly busi­ness trips to the state cap­i­tal from those same corners.

Viewed in an ag­gre­gate anal­y­sis, all those facts present a bona fide op­por­tu­nity. Here and now, 148 years af­ter the cer­e­mo­nial Golden Spike cel­e­brated transcon­ti­nen­tal unity, it’s time for Arkansans to come into the age of rail travel. Granted, since rail pas­sen­ger ser­vice was never preva­lent here, the no­tion feels for­eign. But habits can be changed, and should be when they save money, en­ergy and lives.

Then there’s the cost. Trains have al­ways been viewed as pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive to set up, run and main­tain. But in­no­va­tive in­spi­ra­tion ar­rived via Ver­mont, where an out­fit called Al­lEarth Rail re­cently un­veiled new, value-driven ideas for restor­ing com­muter rail ser­vice.

Headed up by en­ergy en­tre­pre­neur David Blit­ters­dorf, Al­lEarth Rail is us­ing 1950s-era Budd rail diesel cars to slash costs and dras­ti­cally im­prove ef­fi­ciency over tra­di­tional diesel mul­ti­ple unit (DMU) sys­tems. The Budd cars are ba­si­cally self-pro­pelled pas­sen­ger cars, with a com­pact but pow­er­ful diesel en­gine mounted be­low the floor.

A ren­o­vated Budd car costs 85 per­cent less than a new DMU car, re­quires half the crew and can seat half again as many rid­ers more com­fort­ably. Op­er­a­tionally, Budd cars pro­vide high flex­i­bil­ity at low over­head. Main­te­nance costs are min­i­mal (en­gines can be com­pletely changed out in an hour), ac­cel­er­a­tion is good (54 mph in 90 sec­onds) and no costly switch en­gines or crew are re­quired for en route di­vi­sions.

That means a sin­gle train can cost-ef­fec­tively serve mul­ti­ple des­ti­na­tions. There’s also no need for costly turn­arounds at ter­mi­nals; Budd cars have engi­neer con­trols at both ends.

Blit­ters­dorf pre­dicts Al­lEarth Rail can pro­vide re­gional rail ser­vice at onethird the cost of Am­trak. That kind of sav­ings makes Arkansas com­muter rail tran­sit worth a sec­ond (and third) look.

Maybe our own pas­sen­ger-train ini­tia­tive is an­chored around ma­jor state uni­ver­si­ties, where fund­ing might be cou­pled with ed­u­ca­tional in­vest­ment as a built-in added ben­e­fit to stu­dents.

Costs could be min­i­mized by keep­ing sched­ules and stops sim­ple at first, and adapt as de­mand emerges. Con­sumer be­hav­iors change when al­ter­na­tives ap­pear, and the per­ceived bar­ri­ers to rail­road rid­ing would eas­ily evap­o­rate once it be­came avail­able and com­mon­place.

Who pre­dicted Uber’s pop­u­lar­ity? If we had week­day morn­ing and evening com­muter trains run­ning to UA, ASU and UALR, and week­end and hol­i­day sched­ules an­chor­ing sports and other cal­en­dar events, it’s any­body’s guess what ad­di­tional en­trepreneur­ship pos­si­bil­i­ties would arise around the new­found mar­ket of rid­ers.

The state and tax­pay­ers al­ready heav­ily sub­si­dize planes and au­to­mo­biles. Trains would pro­vide some real safety so­lu­tions, some needed re­lief to con­gested road­ways and some wel­come re­duc­tion on the car­bon en­ergy grid.

All aboard!

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