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Tuesday, May 30, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Forget gas; we need a plan to keep passenger trains rolling

Special to The Times

Here we go again — blaming everything on the oil companies for the spiraling cost of gasoline. How about we try something positive for a change, say, restoring our passenger trains?

For decades, Europe has paid double what the U.S. pays for gas, and just look at the trains they have. Every day, thousands of passenger trains — conventional and high-speed — whisk tourists and business people across the continent.

Of course, Europe has a plan for trains. Addiction prevents that here. So addicted have Americans become to the automobile we have forgotten all that railroads were — and could be again.

Indeed, our plan would begin with some national soul-searching about why we lost our passenger trains in the first place. On May 1, 1971, the railroads deeded to Amtrak just 180 trains. As late as 1960, the railroads had operated at least 5,000.

Simply, a new generation of railroad executives wished to downsize, dropping passengers for more profitable freight. Freight trains, or so the railroads also argued, did not need faster, double track.

The inescapable irony is that America abandoned the passenger train just when the environment needed it most. Need any American be convinced of that, watching the march of asphalt and urban sprawl?

Again, our plan to restore railroads would include why to restore them — the preservation of America the Beautiful. Like Europe, when American passenger trains were in their glory, we knew to appreciate the entire landscape. Westbound from Chicago to Seattle, the Northern Pacific Railway invited passengers to "Count the Mountains!" From the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, railroads invited the same.

Today, most of Europe may not be wilderness, but its countryside still has that magic. Even high-speed railroads will slow and curve gracefully to protect a lakeside or patch of forest. A railroad technology — often powered by hydroelectricity — has been mastered for every landscape.

Europe's secret is that its railroads never downsized; double track still abounds. Restoring that flexibility, our plan would pursue the same. Now that American freight trains are long and heavy, Amtrak is always in the way of one of them. Worse for passengers, there is so much freight crossing the continent — containers from Asia and coal from Wyoming — that the railroads argue they have no room left.

Then it is time to make the room. Believing in conservation — wanting beauty — we would never give up on trains.

A single railroad track, just 6 feet across, has the capacity of a superhighway 10 times wider. As for energy savings, even the most conservative studies give trains an advantage of 4 to 1 over cars and airplanes.

In short, we would not allow our plan to die protesting the "economics." Sure, railroads cost money to build and operate, but has anyone looked at the airlines lately — $36 billion in losses just since 9/11.

Moreover, how about the cost of highways? In 2005, Congress authorized $286 billion for them, even as critics pounced on Amtrak for losing $1 billion.

Our plan would end such double standards. If operating railroads means to "lose" money, then operating highways means the same. Asphalt breeds red ink, too. Conversely, if Americans consider highway construction an investment, so is the cost of saving trains.

Granted, not even railroads are a panacea. The point is that having them would give us a real alternative in place of the false promises we have now. Ethanol? Oil shale? Tar sands? Gasifying coal? Really, do we want all our agriculture to be for energy, even as we turn the beauty of the West inside out?

It all gets back to admitting that some technologies are good for the environment, and others not as good. Here, then, is the rest of our plan:

Like Europe, we demand that our railroads act like public utilities — which they are. We break up their current monopolies and restore true competition. We insist that competition include serving passengers as the privilege for hauling freight.

As taxpayers, we give to railroads what we give to highways and airports, provided that railroads serve the public. That means intercity passenger trains every hour, not once or twice a day.

Like Europe, we accept that our frontier is at an end. We insist that everyone, including corporations, contribute to the greatest good of civilization.

In the 1970s, two energy crises taught us little compared to what Europe learned. We went right back to our selfish plan — gas-guzzling SUVs. This time, we need a railroad plan. If truly we believe in the need for beauty and balance, the time for action — and good trains — is now.

Alfred Runte of Seattle writes on the environment and transportation. His new book is "Allies of the Earth: Railroads and the Soul of Preservation" (Truman State University Press).

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