Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Rail’s superior safety remains unappreciated

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The latest pushback during a given discussion over drinks doesn't catch me unawares, but the vehemence still takes me aback. "You talk trains and safety. But you just want to take away our cars."

AMTK in Mich. grade crossingIncredibly, that charge comes even if one is talking about freight trains and not passenger conveyance. Either way, as a Railway Age editor and a rail advocate, I'm now part of the Black Helicopter conspiracy, one of the UN storm troopers, "those people" (That one's true! I'm a "commuter" five days a week—guilty!) who is perpetuating a reputed "War on Cars."

For me, the focus is on modal choice, not dictate, complemented by safety concerns that I trust are moderate in scope. Nothing is perfectly safe; life would be insipid if everything was bubble-wrapped. But trains aren't a major danger factor. Cars are far worse; the data speak for themselves.

Does it matter if I own and operate a car? "What—you only own one?" is often an eventual if indirect accusation—more proof! But the real venom these days is saved for the radical idea that streets might handle many things, as indeed they used to. Like streetcars. Or (heaven forfend) bicycles and pedestrians. Somehow, these modal elements are inherently and radically dangerous—as a sudden surge of concern for safety arises, as long as it's the perceived safety of the automaniac piloting a ton or more of steel weapon.

Some folks in the rail industry might not wish to be associated with the bike-and-hike crowd. On the whole, I'm OK with it. I admire the adept political tenacity of both groups to reformulate North American transport policy so potently with so little in the way of financial resources (raised or spent). No one need remind me of the anti-rail hostility many groups offer on their own, be they bicycle riders or ATV operators. But at times such groups can be and have been allies to rail's revival, when they grasp the idea that street sharing involves options for all. And that such sharing can be safely implemented.

I don't see such emphasis from the (often self-proclaimed) Road Warriors. More often I see an insistence that "roads are for cars," almost a sing-song parody of "Trix Are For Kids" and almost equally as mindless. Share with a streetcar or LRT? The sky is falling, the danger supposedly incalculable to the average motorist. Buses, trucks, those can be handled, avoided, but somehow evil streetcars just prove too much. We just might have to take out more pedestrians to avoid such an "accident" (somehow making pedestrian interference something less; their safety seems a nonfactor).

War on cars? For me, the closest thing to legalized murder in North America (yes, including Canada, too) is employing war with cars, resulting in "accidents" that end a life or, per a random off-course taxi cruise Aug. 20 in Midtown Manhattan, simply lop off a British tourist's foot and part of a leg. The ped-and-bike crowd duly logs these all-too-common occurrences on various websites, making it expressly clear by the data which modal option is the truly dangerous one. Sometimes they even specifically note the dangerous mode is – not rail or rail transit!

Perhaps that's something the rail industry itself might want to stress more clearly and more often on its own. Yes, it comes up now and again, often through the Association of American Railroads, sometimes by Amtrak or a Class I freight operator such as CSX. But the perception of "dangerous trains" still hangs over the industry as the spectacular incident (such as in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, July 6) captivates the public's morbid attention.

A local reporter in British Columbia tells Railway Age her newspaper's concern is of the danger from both growing rail coal export and potential crude-by-rail moves, citing Lac-Megantic as a cause for heightened scrutiny. Putting coal aside, I politely noted any comparable danger resulting from ruptured oil pipelines (including threat to health, if not life) seems to be left out of the overall equation. Or should coal (and oil, for that matter) move by truck? Maine officials reportedly have seriously considered such a thing for oil in the wake of Lac-Megantic. How safe might that be?

At last check, 47 people died in Lac-Megantic, and that's tragic, pure and simple. But it's not disrespectful to measure that tragedy against other numbers, such as roughly 90 people per day – per day – buying it on U.S. roads and highways. Some of them are bicyclists and pedestrians. If they're guilty of a War on Cars, they're paying a price.

Three people died in Secaucus, N.J., in 1996 when two New Jersey Transit trains collided. Some people nationwide can still recall that, almost effortlessly. What's overlooked is another factoid: On average, two people have died on New Jersey roads on every day since. And railroads are the danger?

Half-kiddingly, I often tell my son that if he is foolish enough to act in an unsafe manner, and get hit by a train, and yet somehow survives: Don't worry, I'll finish the job myself. My son laughs that off, and I'm pretty confident that, frontal lobe immaturity notwithstanding, he'll avoid messing with or around railroads (in his case, Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, shown at right) at risk of life. He has so far.hblrt car

I lack such confidence when it comes to death (his or mine) by auto. Through fortune and fate, I can't point to any family member who's been a victim of gun violence. I also can't link any family member's death directly to drug or alcohol abuse. But auto casualties? My family has been burnt, often and sometimes badly. My family is just one of many. Somehow North America shrugs, with some political officials (e.g., Toronto) or candidates (e.g., Seattle) insisting there's a war on cars.

So I'll talk trains, though I have no intention of disenfranchising anyone's licensed, registered use of their personal internal combustion engine. Such disenfranchisement, should it come, will likely be from economic forces beyond my ability to shape or control. Meanwhile, what little social force I do have vis a vis the matter will be simply: Road safety? Rail can help with that.

The good news is that it's happening in cities across the continent and even in some smaller municipalities. Rail. Sharing roads. Safely. Often without a helicopter in sight.

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.