Thursday, June 19, 2014

"Green" railroads and Box Turtles

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One hears the word "green" more than ever at any given rail conference, not without reason. Most in the rail world, naturally enough, apply the allusion to themselves and their fellow human beings. Most want a cleaner, greener world, a better environment, for themselves and their children. I do that, too. But I also use the Box Turtle as a standard measurement, and I insist the latter measurement shows rail transport, once again, to be the superior land mode.

My favorite reptile since childhood, the Eastern Box Turtle is a neat little package of terrestrial turtle that, while not quite a tortoise, can range far from water – and infrequently far across the countryside. Experts suggest a happy, well-fed specimen can spend its 100-year life on a piece of turf the size of a football field, and I have one in my tiny back yard area that's thrived for 20 years.

Too often, though, the Eastern Box Turtle falls victim to mindless automotive traffic, large range or small, a major factor in making it a "species of Special Concern" in my home state of New Jersey. Thoughtful drivers can and do assist turtles across the Garden State Parkway when they see a vulnerable target. Sometimes one can't see it, or see it in time.

All that goes for trains, too, but here the news is better. Trains can't stop on a dime, true, but thanks to far narrower rights-of-way, and the marvel of steel rail itself, my favorite turtle is a lot more likely to survive crossing the railroad tracks than it is a major highway, or even a county road.

Arriving back at Railway Age's New York headquarters after a pleasant sojourn to Montreal and the 2014 APTA Rail Conference, resplendent with beaucoup references (always earnest, often earned) to clean and green, I opened my email to find an example of Box Turtle Standard, courtesy of Cape May County resident and trusted confidant Paul Mulligan, who also assists short line Cape May Seashore Lines (CMSL).CMSL box turtle1

The shot at right, taken in Tuckahoe, N.J., by Curt Hudson, shows a fine specimen (I'm guessing female, but I can't be sure) of my favorite turtle species getting some human attention as a locomotive waits in the background, after setting off freight cars in Woodbine, N.J. CMSL personnel indeed are attuned to doing this; I was aboard one train a few years ago that stopped in a similar circumstance. I'm told crews of CSX consists in the neighborhood often do the same.

That's gratifying, but I often argue those turtles have a better-than-average chance of surviving even if the train passes overhead. If they're not actually on the railhead, as this individual was, the turtles benefit from a superior, green, fixed-guideway form of transport. And even their absolute danger zone atop the railhead is, or should be, mercifully brief. You can't say that about major highways, try as one might.

What's more green? Railroads, by far. Who benefits? Lots of species, humans among them. And Box Turtles, in the running now for about 15 million years and counting. Or so I hope, and I'm counting on railroads to help stretch the success of both species a bit longer.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.