Obama Memo: Redeem Yourself With Rail

Has the Obama Administration, in its first three years, helped the United States ween itself from fossil fuels? Or more urgently, from oil? The 2005-2008 period sent another stern warning that a discretionary, oil-based lifestyle was unlikely to be sustainable in America. The data now proves this out. From the highs of 2005, US oil consumption has fallen 10-12% as a growing tranche of the country can no longer afford petrol. The tragedy of course is that the Obama Administration could have easily used the financial crisis to start rebuilding our rail system: securing for itself a win-win in both job creation, and, a lessening of the economy’s energy intensity. Instead, token investments in select city transport projects and a symbolic interest in high-speed rail have masked the reality that both parties in Washington remain fully committed to the Automobile-Highway complex.

Good news springs forth from the bad news, however. The footprint of America’s passenger rail system may lie beneath overgrown lilacs, but the majority of the rights-of-way have been maintained. To give some idea of the great contraction that took place with our rail system as the folly of our national highway program went into overshoot, these two maps from a half century ago tell the tale. (source: National Association of Railroad Passengers). The first is from 1962, when the intercity passenger rail network still covered 88,710 route miles.

Just 10 year later however, with intrusive highways bisecting American cities and ruining the integrity of their downtowns, the number of passenger route miles had collapsed by over 75%, to 19,366 miles.

Was the Obama Administration correct in thinking that oil prices would moderate, thus making our continued, outsized investment in Automobile Infrastructure the correct policy choice? There’s no longer any need to argue, about the answer. In the same way that normalcy bias disabled the Administration from understanding that the “recession” was not a typical, post-war affair, the same obsolete thinking guided Washington to believe a return to normalized oil prices was in our future. Now for the data: 2011 oil prices are at the highest annual average since 2008, at $94.81 per barrel. Gasoline prices at the pump were at the highest ever during the just concluded Christmas period. And total energy expenditures as a percentage of GDP are back above 9.00%.

This blog advised the Obama Administration to run hard, very hard, towards rail back in 2009—prior to entering office. Now that oil consumption is in decline in the US, its the responsibility of Washington to give Americans the alternative which most cities are already choosing: streetcars, light rail, commuter rail. On a national level, we need an even larger investment to finally separate intercity rail lines for passengers away from existing freight lines. And, the two main corridors on West and East coasts beg for a decade long series of mega-projects, with world-class high-speed service. As it’s a fairly good bet Obama will win reelection, I suggest the Administration redeem itself with rail in its second term.


  • Richard Elder

    What possible motivation has the Obama Administration for  supporting Amtrak or a larger scale rail system?  Has the industry contributed the minimum of 100 million $ to his re-election campaign?  Has it required him to appoint a Secretary of Treasury of their own to further their interests like finance capital did?  Has the rail lobby discovered that he is a closet pedophile and are using that information as blackmail? You say he should support a revival of rail because it is a good thing?  Get Real. Normalcy bias my ass.

  • Second term? I see you have fallen prey to Lamestream Media trap that Michele Bachmann won’t win in 2012 and return the Oval Office to Jesus. And THEN we’ll see about this fancy 22nd century rail stuff you keep on about. Cars forever! There is 50,000 years of oil sitting under Phoenix! I read it in the comments of this very blog!!!!

  • I disagree with supporting rail. The first step for rail is to be de-monopolized in passenger service by simply breaking up Amtrak and returning service to those carriers whom give it right of way. Ergo from 1 provider to 4+. This will reduce Amtrak simply being a siphon that takes subsidies from taxpayers and eats through them while providing no real improvement in service & price of transit. Amtrak is highly inefficient and throwing more money at it will not make it so.

    Second. When our energy dynamic changes and we go from one energy density (oil) to a different one (say thorium nuclear) with Tesla-S or similar cars that get 300 miles + per charge, the shift will be dramatic and rail will not aid in the issuance (unless it gets resolved and becomes more efficient).

    Wasting billions on a monopolized infrastructure vs highway system seems a bit short sighted. My guess is the problem is that inner city rail simply took over the rights of way of the commercial operators and Amtrak became the only way for them to give it up without giving up rights of way through annexation. The reality is if there was no way for public metro agencies to annex private right of ways there would still be private commercial service that would have been efficient since it would compete with cars on price unlike now where they simply price unrealistically and shortages are made up through public subsidies.

  • Thor Wotansen

    Good points and I especially agree with the comment on infrastructure.  Trains may be more efficient on a pure energy consumption basis than cars, but cars can be redeployed.  When a city such as Detroit fails, individuals, truck companies, etc. can move the vehicle assets very easily to a region/area which is growing.  A lot of the fixed rail and other infrastructure will sadly just rot.  

  • Jeff Burton

    Ha ha! People who disagree with you are so dumb. 

  • Anonymous

    The highway system was built out over a course of 40+ years.  It cannot be undone or replaced with rail in a matter of one or two election cycles.  In short, the US is screwed.  I’m glad I moved to Europe (permanently).

    Democracy and elections are detrimental to energy and transportation policy reform.  People tend to vote against anyone that raises vehicle license fees or higher gasoline taxes.  And yet those are exactly what is needed to raise the money needed to put in place good public transit system.

    Gasoline cost around $10 a gallon in London.  Can you imagine Americans going along with that?   $10 gasoline will happen.  But it will not be the high taxes that get us there, it will be oil depletion.

  • gregor.us

    The easy energy transition you describe is not a pathway shared by those who have studied the history of such transitions. (electric cars running on power created by new sources). Given the extraordinary efficiencies of rail vs motorized transport, that points to rail.

    The US has never created a more vast, more expensive, and more expensive to maintain infrastructure system than our highway system. The Auto-Highway complex is the beneficiary of enormous subsidies on all levels of government. It is a centrally planned behomoth, which now sucks hundred of billions of taxpayer funds each year. Worse, given that it was built out on $12-14 dollar oil (inflation adjusted) and used and maintained for many years at those price levels, it’s now possible to ask the question: is the automobile and highway complex an investment that provides negative economic return? Ask California, ask Illinois and Florida and NY State.

    My post is not about Amtrak. It’s just a continuation of the explanatory work I’ve done for years, on this subject. We don’t have to use the Amtrak model.


  • gregor.us

    Yes, the US is screwed in many ways but not in the way you describe. We don’t have to replace the highway system. We just have to halt all new investment in it, and devote the capital to rail projects on both East and West Coasts, and also the South Coast. Taking an enormous amount of passenger vehicle traffic off I-5 on the West Coast and I-95 in the East will accomplish alot. Besides, the US is already past peak auto sales, and peak oil consumption. We have dropped our consumption by nearly 12% in 5 years. Much of that drop is the due to having a smaller, post crisis economy. But that is part of the problem: we were super car dependent, and we need to be able to generate GDP ex-the auto sector both as a means of transport but also in industrial terms.