Fast track to nowhere

The Covington News - - Local news -

Last week I saw first­hand just how back­wards and im­pov­er­ished our passenger rail sys­tem in this coun­try is when I took an Am­trak train from At­lanta to Char­lottesville, Va., to at­tend a con­fer­ence on cli­mate change.

My train was sup­posed to de­part from At­lanta at 8: 21 p. m. last Wed­nes­day, travel through the night and ar­rive in Char­lottesville at 7:15 a.m. the next morn­ing, well in time for the 9:45 a.m. start time of the con­fer­ence.

How­ever, I was not to de­part from At­lanta un­til six hours later due to the de­rail­ment of a CSX freight train. As a re­sult of the de­rail­ment, the passenger Cres­cent train didn’t ar­rive in Char­lottesville un­til mid-af­ter­noon and I missed most of the first day of the con­fer­ence.

That a sim­ple train de­rail­ment would take six hours to rem­edy is mind­bog­gling, con­sid­er­ing that this is the United States — the most de­vel­oped coun­try in the

Still, we are way be­hind the curve when it comes to up­dat­ing our passenger rail sys­tem, which is com­prised solely of Am­trak, to meet the needs of this cen­tury.

world. Wait­ing in the early hours of Thurs­day morn­ing for the train to ar­rive, I felt like I was liv­ing in the Third World again.

But even when I briefly lived in Egypt my ju­nior year of col­lege, I don’t ever re­mem­ber wait­ing for a train that long. And don’t get me started about the trains in Europe. Re­mem­ber­ing how pleas­ant, eco­nom­i­cal and fast it was to travel by train in the Euro­pean Union made me want to bang my head against the back of my very hard and un­com­fort­able bench seat in the Am­trak sta­tion in the wee hours of the morn­ing as I squirmed around, try­ing to find a comfortable way to while away the long hours be­fore the Cres­cent train fi­nally pulled into the sta­tion.

That six-hour train de­lay is em­blem­atic of the way the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has con­sis­tently un­der­funded mass tran­sit in this coun­try. Congress fi­nally ap­proved new leg­is­la­tion this fall that will pro­vide $12 bil­lion in fund­ing for Am­trak, which has seen record rid­er­ship this year as a re­sult of high gaso­line prices. Still, we are way be­hind the curve when it comes to up­dat­ing our passenger rail sys­tem, which is com­prised solely of Am­trak, to meet the needs of this cen­tury.

Just how far be­hind we are as a coun­try in our un­der­stand­ing of just what the chal­lenges will be this cen­tury was brought home to me at the con­fer­ence in Char­lottesville.

Sur­rounded by a large group of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sors from some of the most pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties in this coun­try, along with cur­rent and for­mer em­ploy­ees of the Depart­ment of En­ergy and the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, I was dis­ap­pointed to see that the at­ten­dees, while ob­vi­ously very con­cerned about cli­mate change and all in agree­ment that fed­eral action was needed to ad­dress it, didn’t seem to be ex­tremely con­cerned about the slow pace with which the gov­ern­men­tal ma­chin­ery is mov­ing into place.

At­ten­dees spec­u­lated that na­tional leg­is­la­tion em­ploy­ing ei­ther a tax on car­bon diox­ide emis­sions or a car­bon cap-and-trade sys­tem wouldn’t be passed for an­other two years. I can only guess that the rea­son at­ten­dees weren’t more con­cerned with the pon­der­ous pace the gov­ern­ment is mov­ing in ad­dress­ing cli­mate change is be­cause they re­main woe­fully out of touch with the lat­est in­for­ma­tion com­ing from the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity that mon­i­tors things like the rate of sea level rise and the rate at which po­lar ice caps are melt­ing.

Were they aware of th­ese re­cent de­vel­op­ments, which are oc­cur­ring at an ex­po­nen­tial rate and can­not be pre­dicted, I don’t doubt that they would be call­ing for a much more ag­gres­sive time line from Pres­i­dent-elect Obama. I can only hope our new pres­i­dent is cog­nizant of the sci­en­tific re­al­i­ties on the ground be­cause we cer­tainly don’t have an­other two years to frit­ter away on this.

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