Planes, Trains or Automobiles? 

Transportation Alternatives in the Face of Peak Oil

A couple weeks ago I took a five-day jaunt to Toronto to the see in-laws. On a whim, frustrated by the hassles and expense of flying, and not wanting to spend ten hours trapped in the hell of traveling on the Interstate system (huge trucks, depressing sprawl, chain food, endless stops for expensive gas), we chose Amtrak.

Well, we were also considering the environment. The most conservative estimates suggest that energy consumption by train travel, on a passenger-mile basis (the energy consumed transporting one passenger one mile) is half that of air travel. Trains are actually probably quite a bit better than that. Other studies suggest that much of the environmental damage done by airplane travel is due to the release of exhaust at high altitudes. So using twice as much fuel does more like ten times as much environmental damage, greenhouse-gas wise.

I’ve never traveled long distances on a train on this continent, despite having enjoyed several long trips in Europe. In a few conversations I had before our trip, friends stood slack-jawed at even the possibility of a 600-mile train trip. Others questioned the sanity of the ten-hour on-board confinement. But imagine a flight to Toronto: it’s only an hour and 15 minutes, but the trip to the airport takes about that long too. Then there’s the check-in line, the security check line, and the hours in advance of your flight that you must spend waiting. Door-to-door, that hour and a quarter easily becomes five or six hours. If your flight isn’t delayed… and, according to the fine folks at NPR, thanks to an out-of-date air traffic control system, heightened security, and a dramatic increase in the number of flights, more flights are being delayed, or cancelled, than ever before.

The train’s starting to look pretty good, isn’t it? At the risk of sounding like an Amtrak ad, let me tell you just how good. Seats are huge, reclining and footrested, with an electrical outlet at each one. The café car has a good selection of food and drink (I was offered a wedge of lime with my Corona!) and when we needed a break from our seats, the café booths allowed us to listen to the conductors’ gossip while we imbibed. We arrived at our destination calm and refreshed, napped and fed. The trip became an enjoyable part of our vacation, not some Herculean trial to be dealt with and then recuperated from.

Post-vacation, I watched the documentary A Crude Awakening, which pieces together historical footage and recent interviews with former and present policy makers, OPEC leaders, politicians and scientists, to explain the horrifying reality of peak oil. Without consulting a single radical environmentalist or bearded hippie academic, the filmmakers have created a compelling and grim argument that life as we know it — petroleum-based, 20th-century-type life — is soon to end. We will run out of oil. We won’t be prepared.

Within hours of finishing A Crude Awakening, doing a little web surfing to take my mind off the imminent collapse of the world as I know it, I found this: “U.S. Secretary of Transportation Says Bikes ‘Are Not Transportation’.” In an interview on PBS Mary Peters, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, tried to lay the blame for the Minneapolis bridge collapse on the 10 percent of federal transportation spending that doesn’t go to roads or bridges.

So here we are, entirely dependent for EVERYTHING on a substance we’re about to run out of. We can’t make any more, and all the leading contenders for replacing oil have serious flaws. We should be putting billions of dollars into alternative-energy research and development. We should be developing light rail systems, giving (for free, yes) bicycles to anyone who will use them, and transferring as much transport as we can off our roads. Trains of all kinds should be getting funding. Instead, Bush and co. do just the opposite.

My suggestion this week, then, is take a train. If you need to get somewhere on this continent, do it by rail. Diversify your experience and our infrastructure. You’ll save energy, you’ll be happier, and you’ll be supporting a mode of transportation that’s been under-funded and underutilized for years. And laying the groundwork for some serious change, which is coming whether we want it or not.

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