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Riding the Rails

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Riding the Rails

By Doug Thompson

Home ownership has become a ball and chain to many, as readers of my column in “The Morning News” have heard me say.

Americans aren’t as mobile as they used to be because they don’t want to give up their houses. This closes off a lot of job options.

I’m also quite skeptical of local light rail, as readers know.

I’m not so skeptical of the president’s “high-speed” train idea.

Fayetteville is a long way from the proposed line that would pass through Little Rock to Texarkana and on to Dallas and then Austin. I’ll probably never see high-speed rail access directly to Fayetteville in my lifetime.

Millions of Americans, however, already commute an hour or more one way to get to their jobs. They could cover a lot more ground at 100 to 200 miles an hour.

In my dreams, there’d be a train going from Little Rock to Fayetteville. Even at 100 miles an hour, that trip would take two hours. I wouldn’t be driving, though. I could leave a legislative session after the morning committees. My compatriots covering the Capitol would cover the House and Senate when they convene in the afternoon. I’d put some earphones on and finish my story on my laptop computer on the way back. I’d get to go home every night.

Could I afford it? The question to ask is, could my employer afford it? The company pays mileage, enough to cover a train ticket. If it didn’t cover the whole cost, I’d pay the difference. I don’t have to have a bullet train.

I haven’t researched the whole idea closely. My first-blush impression is to agree with John Stilgoe, Harvard professor and author of “Train Time.” “Popular Mechanics” quotes him as saying that the U.S. doesn’t need new 200-mph train routes to divert passengers from airlines.

“Stilgoe believes that there will be a huge resurgence in train travel in the next 50 years, without high-speed projects that require entirely new track to be laid down,” the article says. “His research models, based on real-world travel patterns, show that ‘a lot of people want to travel at 100 miles an hour for distances up to 150 miles,’ he says. Improving the current train infrastructure, and in some places really upgrading it (to European high-speed standards) can be done with existing technology.”

This isn’t Europe, where commuter trains never died out. I don’t particularly want to ride or pay for 200 mph travel. I’d just as soon go along at 100 mph and be able to go to a restroom without having to pull over.

With all that said, let’s be clear here: The money the administration’s put into the stimulus package is a pittance compared to the costs of an even modest passenger rail system: $8 billion. California’s proposed needs alone are $40 billion for a system that people would ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. All the stimulus money wouldn’t get from San Francisco to Anaheim, according to news accounts.

As one critic put it, the president’s proposal is too little, too soon.

The best solution would be to not travel at all. I can do a lot of what I do at home most days. I’ll never be able to cover the Capitol that way, though. You have to walk the halls. That’s no old-fashioned sentiment. It’s a simple fact that you get tips and ideas talking to people that you will never get from reading bills and following their progress on the Internet.

People respect people they can see. Whatever beat you cover, there’s no substitute for going and taking a look. That’s just the way it is on my job, but I suspect a generalization from that to other jobs is a safe bet.

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