The passenger rail and transit scene has advocates throughout the nation. So does the environmental movement. While there is general agreement that more passenger trains and rail transit benefit the environment, there appears to be little crossover between advocates on both the environmental scene and the rail scene.
The Rail Users’ Network (RUN) addressed that situation at an on-line conference on October 21 at an event titled Passenger Rail & The Environment – Natural Allies: Environmental Benefits of Passenger Rail / Rail Transit in North America and highlighted in a preview article posted the Railway Age website on October 13. This article will provide a summary of that conference, followed by a commentary summarizing the opinions I expressed during closing remarks. Before then, eight other presenters spoke on issues ranging from rail and climate change to the proposed congestion toll in Manhattan, and some attendees expressed their personal views.
RUN Chair Richard Rudolph kicked off the conference with remarks on environmental issues, as well as other matters pertaining to Amtrak. He called on Amtrak to start new services, and suggested that Amtrak proceed on its plans order new equipment for its long-distance routes and to hire and keep more crew members. He also called on Congress to pass legislation that makes host railroads more accountable for how they treat Amtrak trains on their lines.
He said that, like natural gas, more electrically powered vehicles are not the answer to the problem of improving mobility in a sustainable manner. He added that widespread use of such vehicles would not improve the environment, but they would condemn non-motorists to losing mobility they now have.
The first presenter was Catherine J. García, Campaign Director for the Clean Transportation for All Campaign at the Sierra Club. She began by saying that she and her three-year-old son love trains, and that the Sierra Club is campaigning for increased use of rail transportation, bicycles and electric vehicles. She expressed concerns about the climate crisis, public health and mobility issues, blaming congestion, unsafe streets and pollution from road freight transportation as causing those problems.
Other attendees also made comments and suggestions along similar lines. Carl Jackson, a retired transit manager who restored historic PCC streetcars and restored service with them on a line in El Paso, called for reactivating more abandoned rail transit lines, such as the one he restored. Another caller said it was “time to put more rail in the Sierra Club’s outreach.”
Darrell Clarke, Chair of the Transportation Committee for the Los Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club, spearheaded the campaign to build the Expo Line, a light rail line operated by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro). He gave a presentation about the environmental benefits that the line has brought to its service area. He presented a history of the line since the campaign started in 1989, and summarized its benefits as “speed, comfort and capacity.” He described the organizing campaign undertaken by his group Friends 4 Expo Transit, which pushed for service, which started on the line in 2012. The question that campaigners asked of local officials and the public was “What are you FOR?” (emphasis in original). That approach eventually caught on, and the campaign attracted support from the business, labor and political communities.
Regarding environmental issues themselves, Clarke said that last summer was the hottest on record, that the transportation sector accounts for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions, and that passenger vehicles use 28.5% of fossil-fuel refining capacity. He mentioned the need for more electrified railroads, but also noted the inefficiencies in current methods of producing hydrogen for fuel. His concluding advice: “Get support for a particular project, attend meetings and know what to do.”
The next presenter was Barry Scott, a Board Member of the advocacy group Coastal Rail Santa Cruz, which is pushing for a corridor that would contain both an active rail line and a recreational trail. He described a demonstration project that ran two years ago that featured excursion runs on a 32-mile rail line that went through Santa Cruz and Watsonville. His campaign slogan is, “People, Planet and Prosperity” and his group is pushing for the line to be included in California’s next State Rail Plan but acknowledged that a using that long a line with single track limits capacity. David Schonbrun, another advocate in the region, cautioned against “anti-rail ‘environmentalists’” as a force opposing new starts.
Brian Yanity, Vice President of the Rail Passengers’ Association of California (RailPAC) and a RUN Board member, began his presentation about electric technology by noting that young people are pushing for electric rail in California. He mentioned the 50kV Lake Powell & Black Mesa, a coal-carrying line on Navajo land, which he said was an example of technology that could reduce soot and other pollutants. On the passenger side, he cautioned about barriers like up-front capital costs, need for more clearance, and NIMBY opposition. Still, he said that ridership increases after a line is electrified.
Yanity listed the places where passenger rail lines are electrified in the United States. They include Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) and local lines nearby, with some in Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco’s Caltrain line, which is now being electrified. He also mentioned that there are plans to electrify some GO Transit lines in the Toronto area. He called for more electrification on the freight side, too, but questioned whether battery power is ready for widespread use.
Maine advocate Peter Cole, representing Train Riders Northeast and the Maine Rail Group, presented a cautionary tale about efforts to save state-owned lines in Maine that were largely rebuffed by the State. He denounced what he called “Maine’s destruction of the railroads” and said that advocates were “outspent and overpowered” when they attempted to preserve lines for future passenger service. He described the state’s railroad history, noting that there were many lines with passenger trains in 1937. He also described routes that he and his colleagues had attempted to save: the Mountain Line, Berlin Sub to Lewiston/Auburn, Lower Road to Bangor, and Rockland Branch (which hosted passenger excursions several years ago, but the cost of insurance is a problem today). He also criticized the State Rail Plain, which he said, “talks a good game, but the lines are going to trails.”
Cole described the political process for deciding whether a rail line would be preserved or converted to a trail, noting that the bicycle lobby is strongly opposed to preserving lines, and that the Sierra Club is “inactive” rather than supporting preservation (this writer attended and covered a meeting in Augusta where the battle was fought on August 23 (Rails vs. Trails: The Battle Continues, posted on October 10, 2019 and found at https://www.railwayage.com/passenger/intercity/rails-vs-trails-the-battle-continues/?RAchannel=home). Cole also criticized the state-appointed Rail Utilization Advisory Committees (RUACs), which were supposed to be neutral, but sided with the persons and organizations that called for ripping up the rails to create non-rail trails.
On a different front, New York City and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority are ready to implement a Congestion Tolling plan that would charge motorists a fee by the day for bringing vehicles into Midtown Manhattan south of 60th Street. The fees collected would help support commuter rail and transit with money earmarked for capital improvements to the system. The base charge will be $15.00 from 5:00 AM until 9:00 PM on weekdays and 9:00 to 9:00 on weekends, and $3.75 during overnight hours for passenger automobiles, higher for trucks and buses. Motorists who use a tunnel to get to Manhattan will receive a $5.00 discount, but no other exemptions or discounts were reported. The MTA board must approve the plan. New Jersey officials, apparently representing motorists in the Garden State, strongly oppose the plan and have filed suit to stop it, so implementation has been delayed.
Michael Wojnar, Senior Adviser for Information and Policy at the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority), a state agency, gave the concluding presentation: an overview of the Congestion Tolling program. He started by saying that New York City is the most-congested city in the nation, which is bad for the local economy. He said that the congestion toll would improve air quality, while raising money for the MTA. Toll collection would be implemented by the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA), an MTA component agency.
Wojnar mentioned that 11 million people live in the region, 1.5 million work in Manhattan’s Central Business District, and 143,000 drive there in personal vehicles. Regarding preparation and outreach, he said the effort included a 4,800-page Environmental Impact Study (EIS) and 25 outreach sessions where 950 speakers appeared. In addition, he said that there were 122 requests for exemptions form the toll from “all sorts of different groups” and other requests not to grand exemptions but added that exemptions increase the toll for everybody else. He concluded by saying that, from the revenue collected, $200 million would be spent for mitigating the effect of the toll by providing discounts for some vehicle uses, adding that the revenue can only be used for capital projects—80% for city transit projects and the other 20% for the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North.
RUN Vice Chair Andrew Albert, who is also a rider-representative at the MTA Board, joined Wojnar in supporting the congestion toll, stressing its importance to keeping transit going. Former New Yorker and current El Pasoan Carl Jackson asked about restoring lines that had been lost. Replying to him, Albert mentioned other projects that would benefit city riders: on the New York Connecting Railroad and the Interborough Express (IBX), a proposed light rail line that would connect with subway/elevated lines in Brooklyn and Queens, from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn to Jackson Heights in Queens, and others.
After the presentations, Rudolph mentioned the lack of geographic diversity outside the NEC represented on the Amtrak Board, an issue raised by Sen. Jon Tester of Montana. He also recommended advocates from Oregon and Montana as potential candidates. Following his comments, I gave the closing remarks, which I have summarized below. Rudolph concluded the event by saying that it was “a great conference,” that the presentations were “superb” and it’s time for rail advocates to educate environmental advocates about the advantages of and need for trains and rail transit.
RUN has made recordings of the entire conference through Google Drive in both video (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1nzk7HuOIxNvxnWnzmgzbcrUoEFgaNvN1/view) and audio (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1aMtmRpaa3kxpJhWhep7gcbcViTAqdtfL/view) formats. Speakers’ bios and slide presentations are also available. For more information about RUN, see the RUN website at www.railusers.net.
Rail Advocates Need to Bridge the Environmental Advocacy Gap
I delivered the closing remarks at the RUN conference. Essentially all conference attendees were rail and transit advocates. Some, especially the presenters, also have long experience advocating for the environment, too. Still, few advocates stand in both camps. Accordingly, my summation and advice were geared toward persuading rail advocates to move in the same direction as the environmental movement, and toward convincing them that trains and rail transit will improve the environment, both for the benefit of train and transit riders, and also for the environment through more use of “green” rail transportation.
Even a half-century ago, some people understood the situation. In 1973, I saw a sticker affixed to a 50-year-old railcar on the Central Railroad of New Jersey (later part of Conrail and now New Jersey Transit’s Raritan Valley Line) that said, “Pollution Solution: Ride CNJ.” That message was unusual, though. It still seems unclear that environmentalists are united in their understanding of current environmental threats, and few of them seem to comprehend that passenger trains and rail transit are necessary parts of the solution, if one can still be found. At a conference sponsored by the Sierra Club several years ago, many attendees seemed dumbfounded when an environmental scientist from a local college showed on a map how much of New Jersey could end up under water in a relatively short time. I led a breakout session at that conference, asking for recommendations about how better transit can help the environment. To get the session started, I suggested that the Shore towns along NJT’s North Jersey Coast Line use their “senior shuttle” vans on weekends to take riders from the train to the beaches and boardwalks and back. The session participants seemed more concerned about how “green” the vehicle was than the positive effect of getting motorists off the highways and onto the train.
Certainly, there are rail advocates who care about the environment. Brian Yanity, Darrell Clarke and Barry Green, all of whom presented at the RUN conference, are among them. So are folks like Alan Drake in New Orleans and Sally Gellert in New Jersey, who came to the rail scene after decades of advocacy for the environment, and who participates in a radio program about environmental concerns. While rail advocates seem to care about the environment, environmental advocates do not seem to care similarly about trains and rail transit as parts of the solution. For example, several environmental advocates make statements every month at the New Jersey Transit’s Board meetings, complaining about a power plant that the agency plans to build. It would be powered by natural gas, despite Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign promise to power new plants from renewable sources instead. While their grievance appears legitimate, they never address actual service issues on the state’s transit.
Otherwise in New Jersey, Murphy and other elected officials are fighting New York’s congestion pricing plan in court, even though implementing the plan could entice some of the Garden State’s motorists to make the trip into Manhattan on a train or bus instead. The issues in that case are not partisan, either; the officials who are opposing the toll are all Democrats. Similar things are happening elsewhere, as Peter Cole reported at the conference on the defeats suffered by rail advocates in Maine.
Yanity and other rail advocates at the Sierra Club issued a thoroughly documented report that promoted the benefits of electrifying rail lines for passenger and freight trains. While the Sierra Club supported the report for the most part, it censored about 10% of its content, the part that questioned the efficacy of electric vehicles (trucks and passenger automobiles) as a solution to the current environmental difficulties. Elon Musk, one of the biggest manufacturers of such vehicles, gave the Sierra Club a contribution of $6 million anonymously, and later publicly admitted that he had made that donation (reported in July 2018 by The Hill). Can those two events be purely coincidental, or do they serve as an example of a New Golden Rule: “He who has the Gold makes the Rule”?
So, what does all of this mean for rail and transit advocates who want to promote more trains and better transit as part of an overall program to fight climate change and improve the environment? It is not up to me or any other commentator to determine how cost-effective efforts to bridge the two communities might be. The “mainstream” of environmental advocacy might not yet be ready to embrace rail wholeheartedly, as the Sierra Club’s tacit support for electrified rail combined with censoring concerns about a related core issue demonstrates. Can people who sincerely and apparently correctly believe that trains and transit will bring improvements succeed in persuading the environmental movement generally to join them without reservation before it’s too late? Nobody knows for sure, but there is general agreement in the scientific community that climate change is advancing quickly and there is no time to lose, so it’s up to rail and transit advocates to decide if attempting to convince “mainstream” environmentalists to join them in the battle is an effective use of their limited time and resources.
With or without that support, it is vital for rail and transit proponents to continue their efforts, and accelerate them, if possible. The decision-makers they must convince are elected officials and opinion leaders whose voices matter, whether because of political contributions, or for other reasons. In doing so, it is necessary for advocates to stress the importance of trains and transit to facilitate the movement of people and goods that keeps the local economy (as well as the national economy) going. In other words, they need to make the business case for rail and transit.
That does not mean that they should refrain from making environmental arguments, or social justice and equity arguments, in addition to the “business case.” Nobody seems to dispute the broad concepts that concern the daunting challenge that climate change presents (if they admit that it is happening, at least), or that a clean environment is better for humans and all other life than a polluted one. These arguments will win points with some elected officials and opinion leaders, but not with all of them.
The “business case” is different. It is difficult to fathom that any elected official, whether a Democrat or a Republican, would refuse to support a program that would bring more money to their constituents in a cost-effective manner. Improved mobility for everybody, motorists and non-motorists alike, helps everybody get to worksites and other places, including where they spend the money they make. The tricky part is to convince officials and opinion leaders, essentially all of whom are motorists, that improving mobility for non-motorists as intended beneficiaries is good for motorists, too. Still, there are plenty of stories about cities and regions that improved their passenger train networks and invested in rail transit, and then reaped the benefits of an improved economy and a cleaner environment.
Southern California is one place where that happened, due in large part to the resurgence of rail transit in and around Los Angeles. That city’s downtown core, which was essentially moribund a half-century ago, has become one of the busiest downtowns in the nation. The air there has become cleaner, too. That can also happen elsewhere, and it’s up to rail and transit advocates who also care about the environment to push for improvements of that sort.
David Peter Alan is one of America’s most experienced transit users and advocates, having ridden every rail transit line in the U.S., and most Canadian systems. He has also ridden the entire Amtrak and VIA Rail network. His advocacy on the national scene focuses on the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), where he has been a Board member since 2005. Locally in New Jersey, he served as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition for 21 years, and remains a member. He is also Chair of NJ Transit’s Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC). When not writing or traveling, he practices law in the fields of Intellectual Property (Patents, Trademarks and Copyright) and business law. Opinions expressed here are his own.