Thursday, November 15, 2012

Hurricane takeaway: Taking rail away hurts

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One half-month after dealing up close and personal with Hurricane Sandy, here's my transport takeaway: Take away rail transit, and quality of life definitely takes another hit.

To be sure, that's hardly the most weighty revelation in the aftermath of a storm that destroyed whole neighborhoods and claimed lives. It doesn't even match up with the necessity of dealing with (and if lucky, dodging) the impact of high winds and torrential rain and storm surges. It also probably ranks behind dealing with FEMA or the local power company.

But for most of us up and down the Northeast Corridor, and even within the hard-hit New York metropolitan area, power has been restored, insurance companies have been contacted, offices have reopened, and some semblance of normal routine is expected. We count our blessings (I certainly have) and look ahead, able and even willing to get back to work.

In my case, I've had to rely on bus transportation to do it. Many New Jerseyans have had their rail transit options cut off for some time, far longer than their counterparts in New York and Connecticut. By next week most New Jersey Transit rail lines are expected to finally be back in business. Most likely I'll still be on the bus, but not by choice.

My rail option, PATH, is still recovering from flooded tunnels underneath the Hudson River – and flooding at PATH's Hoboken Station, which in some ways was in the River at the height of the storm. So for two weeks now, I've been a regular bus rider (bus commuter?) on a regular bus route (New Jersey Transit No. 126) with ridership demand and travel times that are anything but regular. I've waited to evaluate the substitution because, to be fair, any change in routine is disruptive and chaotic the first day, the first week. And since I'm the managing editor of a railroad magazine, I've tried to compensate for any pro-rail bias I might carry, and give buses their due, their chance.

The Day One 126 Overload Disaster that was No. 126 on Nov. 5, 2012, has smoothed out, day by day. NJT, with its rail system crippled, responded the only way it could, with buses, and certainly the value and advantages of bus transit were (and still are) in play: They can be deployed quickly. They can adjust and vary their routes. As an interim measure, buses have done what's been asked of them.

And I sure hope it doesn't last too much longer. Superior travel time, cost, convenience, to and from work are things I'd really like to recapture, because bus transit isn't giving me those advantages, plain and simple, try as it might.

My seemingly petty whining and complaining – again, hardly the real life-and-death issues still facing many hurricane victims – is an example of relative deprivation. If I always took the bus, and/or lived in a place where the only public transport was a bus, I'd probably be in better spirits. You don't miss what you never had. You don't miss your water 'til your well runs dry.

That void works to the advantage of all those rail skeptics in so many places arguing that buses are the future of public transport, that BRT is "just like light rail, but cheaper." If the audience hasn't had rail for two or three generations, it doesn't know what it might be missing as it plans for that future.

Rail advocates trying to establish (or, all too often, re-establish) rail transit, be it regional, light rail, or streetcar, have the tougher climb, pointing to places and people (like mine and me) who prefer rail, and benefit in ways economic and environmental and social, but battling against the concept that those places aren't "local" or "relevant" to the given home town.

If those places have no public transit at all, buses indeed may be the way to start, I'll readily agree. But the key words are: to start. To meet current demand and current needs. For now. But the future beckons, and rail must play its part. To the degree that rail projects across the U.S. and Canada are indeed proliferating, it's a tribute to the advocates that they can sell the product as well as they do.

For they have something of worth to promote and to sell. Buses, in my view, simply are not, cannot be, the primary public transit modal choice for the future. We've conducted that experiment for close to 60 years now almost nationwide—give folks buses, don't bother with rail. Those today who take a new sales pitch for the same approach are, in my view, disingenuous. Claiming buses can be "just like light rail, but cheaper!" is wrong on both counts; it isn't "just like," and when operating costs are factored in it's not cheaper, either.MTA NYCT Canarsie

As I've written before, buses are needed, are certainly highly valuable feeders and distributors, are versatile. I use them, and not just following natural disasters, in case the issue is one of personal credibility. And my experience tells me buses just can't handle the capacity needs and demand with the dispatch that rail can. And as my experience is proving, one can throw only so many buses at a transport problem before preferred bus routes (or, in my neighborhood, the Lincoln Tunnel Express Bus Lane) become burdened with their own limitations.

Right now, the bus is the hardest part of my daily trip. For those still doubtful, ponder this: The best portion of my journey, the most reliable and relaxing and expeditious, is on New York's No. 1 local subway line. Incongruous? Not to me. Not at all.

Earlier this year a Presidential candidate suggested that might make me an elitist. Also this year, an editor lamented the existence of “bus snobs.” I don’t believe I’m a snob or that I’m elitist, but I can say I’m elated when the rails are up and running—and for a few minutes of my trip, my quality of life is back somewhere near where it used to be.

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.