Karma police, arrest this man
April 27, 2009 8:59 PM   Subscribe

GM is struggling to survive, announcing today tens of thousands of layoffs and plant closings by next year, and eliminating the Pontiac Brand. Meanwhile just a few weeks ago, the president announced a high speed rail plan [pdf] between many major cities. An interesting turn of events since the documentary Taken For a Ride uses interviews and public records to argue that GM deliberately killed off transportation via rail.
posted by cashman (91 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Related piece about the decline of the American auto industry in this week's New Yorker: worth reading the whole thing.
posted by ornate insect at 9:06 PM on April 27, 2009


I love rail transport. Going to Kalgoorlie out in the outback the only way to go is The Prospector train service. You get a return ticket for the price of a one way flight, there's 230V AC on the train (plug in your laptop or other media device), no take off and land bullshit or anti-wireless bullshit, the seats are bigger and more comfortable and you can even swing the seats around so you can have four people facing each other.

Last time I went to Kal we spent 6 hours playing Mario Kart on our DSes over wireless. We all had our laptops up as well and were sharing media over a local wireless network just because we could. Couple of passengers even joined up as well once they saw the wireless network!
posted by Talez at 9:09 PM on April 27, 2009 [7 favorites]


GM also killed the electric car. And you know who else they did business with? That's right.
posted by Krrrlson at 9:10 PM on April 27, 2009


If Mr. Obama doesn't get with a better program, then we are going to face a Long Emergency as grueling as the French Revolution. One very plain and straightforward example at hand is the announcement last week of a plan to build a high speed rail network. To be blunt about it, this is perfectly fucking stupid. It will require a whole new track network, because high speed trains can't run on the old rights of way with their less forgiving curve ratios and grades. We would be so much better off simply fixing up and reactivating the normal-speed track system that is sitting out there rusting in the rain -- and save our more grandiose visions for a later time. - James Howard Kunstler
posted by Joe Beese at 9:18 PM on April 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


That sounds divine, Talez. If public transit could somehow be ramped up to a comparable level of service/comfort, it might be able to compete with cars.
posted by you just lost the game at 9:19 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Only one high-speed line is now operating, on the Northeast corridor between Washington and Boston

Has anyone used it? I understand it's very exspensive and not much faster than normal rail.
posted by stbalbach at 9:21 PM on April 27, 2009


Re: James Howard Kunstler quote above.. we can do both. It's a false dichotomy to suggest it's a zero sum game. In fact, if the high speed catches on it could be the poster child needed to raise the money to restore the older fleet.
posted by stbalbach at 9:24 PM on April 27, 2009


Okay, how many people actually *want* to buy electric cars? I'm going to bet that it's an extremely low percentage.

But, His Highness knows better than we, and He really should have control of all automobile production. I only very sincerely hope that His reach doesn't also include the banking system, health care and retail sales, because that could possibly be too much for Him to handle all at once.
posted by CountSpatula at 9:24 PM on April 27, 2009


Fucking Pontiacs. I won't shed a tear.

(Disclaimer: I know nothing about classic Pontiacs. But every modern Pontiac I have ever driven has been broken. Even one with 14km on the clock.)
posted by unSane at 9:25 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well driving to Kal is always such a hassle as well and if you're doing the trip with 3 other people you barely break even on fuel costs splitting between 4 people anyway.

Might as well do the trip slightly quicker where you can move around, plug in your laptop, go to the bathroom, buy food and drink whenever you like and not when a service station is coming up.

Only problem with the trip is the complete lack of mobile coverage so you're kind of stuck as far as the Internet is concerned.
posted by Talez at 9:26 PM on April 27, 2009


So long, Pontiac. You always were a tacky looking step-child. My first car was a mid-1980s Bonneville, and it was stolen a week after I got it. Lousy easy-to-steal GM platform.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:27 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


"In fact, if the high speed catches on it "

There's the rub. "IF"

If something that we can't be assured of happens; then these other things can happen.

However, IF we were to re-invest in a national rail system that was apportioned off to the various poorly run for profit entities... you get where I'm going.

Don't get me wrong on the whole High-Speed Rail idea, I like it. National investment is going to create jobs for work gangs and displaced workers alike. Then again I'm surprised that investment in NEw Orleans didn't spur a gold-rush of Construction and Contractor opportunities too (I guess disaster capitalism isn't a sound investment after all, huh?)

It's not easy to look at any one plan and say how it's going to play out until it plays; I can say " I saw this collapse coming in the late nineties when I saw people with no High School diploma playing the stock market like they were drunk on Bathtub gin and dressed like flappers" but that doesn't predict future accuracy in my thinking; does it?

If I was to put my finger on any one plan that would bring future prosperity; it's reinvestment in education; but that's not going to solve any near-future issues and that isn't going to be a political win (so I'm sure it'll fall by the wayside).

So will investment in the Motor Vehicle industry save jobs? Maybe, but it's been bleeding employment stability for years. It really is time to look for something new; something uniquely American. Your idea is sure to be as good as mine. Let me suggest Cheese Steaks.
posted by NiteMayr at 9:33 PM on April 27, 2009


Re: James Howard Kunstler quote above.. we can do both. It's a false dichotomy to suggest it's a zero sum game.

True, but without false dichotomies, how in the world could Kunstler make big bucks hawking disaster porn? I'm with him on the madness of suburbanization-at-all-costs, but his one-trick pony is dangerously close to equine pulp at this point.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:39 PM on April 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


I drove a Pontiac Sunbird up until 195,000 miles when the transmission finally blew out.

I think I put three water pumps into the thing over eleven years. It had a problem with the spark plug cables and I had to replace a couple of radiators and two stereos (although that's because both were stolen, the second time handing me the additional indignity of ejecting the tape I had in it and leaving it on the driver's seat.)

I don't miss her, but I don't regret her.
posted by Cyrano at 9:46 PM on April 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


There's always Autowarriors!
posted by Dia Nomou Nomo Apethanon at 9:48 PM on April 27, 2009


But, His Highness knows better than we, and He really should have control of all automobile production.

Uh, are you referring to Obama? The government as a whole? How exactly are they gaining control of automobile production? I can assure you that neither of these two companies are long for this world. 20% of businesses survive C11, and considering the utter clusterfuck that is GM and Chrysler's respective upper management teams, they don't stand a chance.

Besides, you're dead wrong about whether or not people want to buy EVs -- they do and are (Tesla, Fisker, etc.). People want to move around freely and conveniently; how they get there is not really the point. I'm wondering what the point of being so hostile to changing circumstances is. Are gas engines really that precious to you?
posted by spiderskull at 9:49 PM on April 27, 2009 [7 favorites]


My pontiac shit itself just after I got paid and was a butt car most of its life. It had vapor lock like it was a southern belle. We always said "Pontiac! We build walking excitement". Maybe once we get all of this settled out, multi-spojillion dollar salaries will be harder to come by.

I live in Denver, and I'd take public transportation if it wouldn't extend a 10 minute drive into a 90 minute bus ride. Light rail downtown is fantastic, and I'm really pulling that we get more service out in the suburbs.
posted by boo_radley at 9:52 PM on April 27, 2009


> Okay, how many people actually *want* to buy electric cars?

I want a car that runs on misguided indignation. I think you'll do nicely for a fuel supply.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:54 PM on April 27, 2009 [21 favorites]


20% of businesses survive C11, and considering the utter clusterfuck that is GM and Chrysler's respective upper management teams, they don't stand a chance.

If they screw up, why are we obligated to rescue these two and not the other 80%? Do the other 80% not employ people and contribute to the economy?

Let GM go bankrupt and restructure. Too much baggage as-is and personally, I don't want responsibility for it.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:54 PM on April 27, 2009


Oh man. My grandpa's family business was a Buick & Pontiac dealership. I grew up around Pontiac promotional materials like "We Build Excitement". And yes, I was very excited about the Fiero.

Although the Solstice was impressive and beautiful, Pontiac hasn't turned my eye in a long time, and lost lots of credibility when they made the new GTO look exactly like a Grand Am... still, this news is sad.
posted by scrowdid at 9:58 PM on April 27, 2009


As someone who doesn't like driving long distances (who does, really?) I would heartily welcome a high speed train network. Its really for that medium range transport. Long range (half-transcon and beyond) air travel and renting a car wins.

But if its a 4 hour high speed train ride somewhere, I can get on board with that. 4 hours at an average of 150mph (200mph + stops) is 600 miles, not too bad. From my home thats LA, SD, SF, Phoenix, SLC, Denver (in 5 hrs) and ABQ.

Not that I expect HSR to win. I expect the talking points against it to de-evolve down to something jingoistic.

I guess it fits well with my view of the future. EREVs where 95% of your daily driving is on electricity, renewables, high speed rail on diesel grown by algae in the Sonoran desert, and planes also running on kerosene from that same algae farm.
posted by SirOmega at 10:06 PM on April 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


Ah, yes. Pontiac will always have this lovable pile of crap to its credit. I also fancied notions of obtaining one as a teen but was dissuaded by how fragile they were.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:06 PM on April 27, 2009


Okay, how many people actually *want* to buy electric American cars?
posted by pompomtom at 10:08 PM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


> In fact, if the high speed catches on it could be the poster child needed to raise the money to restore the older fleet.

High speed rail is really upgrading the already heavily used corridors to be able to operate better, get those updated (Amtrak has been operating without a budget pretty much since 2006 from some places I've read, and before anyone says the government should privatize it, they took it over specifically because non of the commercial rail companies could justify losing money on it), and you got a ton of people all of a sudden realizing "hey, rail is pretty neat." Right now going from Portland to Seattle is a crap shoot, because you may spend 2 hours on a side track waiting for freight to pass you.

> Has anyone used it?

The Boston - DC corridor is one of the heaviest traveled in the US, so it was a prime place to upgrade to a highspeed rail. However it really was just a highspeed train meant to run on the existing tracks. The result is most of the time it doesn't really run at high speed. The Acela was a train built to run on our existing slow rail tracks.

The side benefit of creating the Acela is that now Amtrak has a train that can run on standard tracks, we just need a way to upgrade the routes (make them above grade, with bridges instead of rail crossings, etc.) so the Acela can run at full speed more often. The Pacific NW run will be pretty difficult, because it is two tracks running along the coast, almost entirely at grade, that run through small towns, etc. You can't run a train through there going 150mph, you can't even run one through there going something like 25. Those areas are going to need to be bypassed or have raised tracks run through (or both) before you will start seeing higher speed in this region.
posted by mrzarquon at 10:11 PM on April 27, 2009


If you promise me rail, no matter how unlikely and how expensive, you get my vote.

Sadly, this has nothing to do with how great rail might be, and everything to do with my involuntary love of great big machines.
posted by poe at 10:14 PM on April 27, 2009 [9 favorites]


I think Kunstler has it exactly wrong, which is no surprise. Why the hell spend money on a low-speed rail system that failed the first time around? People might actually use a high speed system. If I could get on a conveniently located train in L.A. and get off in Sacramento or San Francisco 2.5 hours later, well, count me in. Otherwise? I'll drive, thanks. A cheaper system that nobody will use is much more of a waste than a system that people use even if it costs much more.
posted by Justinian at 10:17 PM on April 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


I only very sincerely hope that His reach doesn't also include the banking system...

Wait, we still have a banking system?

Anyhow, you're right about one thing. I don't want to buy an electric car.

I want to follow in these guys footsteps, buy a dual 8" Warfield motor and drop it in a piece of shit Ford Aspire I happen to have collecting dust. Then I want to go forth and get into drag races with business types who rushed out to buy sports cars when they found that first gray hair.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:23 PM on April 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Justinian, I totally agree with you. I think it'd be great to get from Ft. Collins, to Denver, to Colorado springs in about 90 minutes.
posted by boo_radley at 10:23 PM on April 27, 2009


If there were reliable, same-day rail service between SF and LA, I'd use it. Reliable and same-day means new rails, or giving passenger trains priority over freight. If they're going to do new rails, might as well make them high speed.

We built an interstate system that links nearly ever podunk city in the country. High-speed rail between the largest cities, while an enormous undertaking, seems tiny compared to what we've already done for roads.
posted by zippy at 10:23 PM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yeah, you know how long a train ride from Los Angeles to Sacramento is right now? Almost 14 hours. FOURTEEN HOURS. And we're supposed to "fix up" that system?

As zippy says, if you have to build all new rails anyway why not make them high speed?

(FOURTEEN HOURS!!?!?!?!)
posted by Justinian at 10:32 PM on April 27, 2009


Justinian: First, let's say you travel in the opposite direction—SF to L.A. Once you get off the train, are you walkin to your destination? There is little in the way of public transportation in LA, everybody is out driving their cars. Might as well drive down.

Second, CA can't even wish to pay for high speed rail in it's present budget crisis.

I do like the 'idea' of a high speed system, but let's be realistic.
posted by artdrectr at 10:38 PM on April 27, 2009


I'm sure we can get it down to 13 hours ;)

I remember way back in the 70s or 80s, some old Japanese multi-millionaire who made his money on high-speed trains in Japan offered California 10s of millions of dollars toward a high speed rail between SF and LA. He knew it would cost a lot more than that, but wanted to offer the down payment, so to speak, as a free gift. The only catch was that they had to commit to actually building it.

California turned him down.
posted by eye of newt at 10:42 PM on April 27, 2009


> Once you get off the train, are you walkin to your destination?

Sounds like a perfect business opportunity for flexcar type service, or an electric car battery swapping setup like this one. The HSR wont be done for a while, but shouldn't be too hard for a company to setup a transit bay next to the terminal that would let you walk off the train, walk up to 'your' car and do the last mile to your office.

And when you are on the train, you can work. Driving in the car, you can only try to do so much. I know if I were working as a consultant (as I did at my last job), they would prefer for me to take the train instead of drive, because it meant I could be online, working and billing customers.
posted by mrzarquon at 10:58 PM on April 27, 2009


Just saw on my local (LV) news: the draft EIS for a high speed rail between Las Vegas and Victorville. Really, Victorville? What am I going to do when the rail line ends there? At least drop me off somewhere in LA where I can rent a car or have a friend come and pick me up.

Its like they want this to fail. Obama had it right - it has to go to/from the city center, and it'll work better on the east cost and other cities with good public transportation. From the Las Vegas Strip/McCarran Airport to I-5 and Katella, down to SNA.
posted by SirOmega at 11:02 PM on April 27, 2009


It will require a whole new track network, because high speed trains can't run on the old rights of way with their less forgiving curve ratios and grades. We would be so much better off simply fixing up and reactivating the normal-speed track system that is sitting out there rusting in the rain -- and save our more grandiose visions for a later time.

That's more or less true. The existing lines can be significantly upgraded, though, to handle nearly high speed trains. You can't pull of a train à grande vitesse or Nozomi Shinkansen without installing new technology, but IIRC upgrading to banked corners, using seamless track, and using a dynamic suspension can get up to circa 200mph without great expense.

But more than intercity rail, innercity rail and efficient busing is required. In this day of the ubiquitous cellphone, there's no reason we shouldn't have ultra-efficient small buses shuttling people with far greater convenience and lower cost than the fixed-route monster busses we currently use. Plus there should be light rail transit in all cities, being fed riders by this convenient bus system. We could virtually eliminate the need for personal cars.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:04 PM on April 27, 2009


I have never been on a train before, save for the ones in amusement parks. The closest I've ever gotten to anything resembling nice travel is... um... the charter buses that my high school gets to run graduating seniors to Disneyland? I remember in 4th grade when we got to the Transcontinental Railroad unit for history and wanting to go on a train ride so freaking badly...

That was 14 years ago and now I'm seriously considering a long-distance rail trip later this year after my friend's AmeriCorps thingy is finished (to make up for the fact that we'd be missing this year's Anime Expo). I'm particularly eyeing the Coast Starlight that runs from LA to Seattle. I don't know if this is quarterlife crisis or slowly going insane from having to live with four bulldogs who keep me up all night with their barking... I just feel like I need to do something suitably oddball like take a train to Seattle and back just for the experience of taking a train. There is a strange appeal to getting one of those rooms in a sleeper car, putting up one's feet and just staring out the train window.

And what Talez describes... ohh yes, WANT. o_o That sounds so unbelievably awesome.
posted by Yoshi Ayarane at 11:04 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


If they screw up, why are we obligated to rescue these two and not the other 80%?
Well, I absolutely agree with you. I'm against the auto bailout.

And what mrzarquon said -- just get a ride from someone or a cab once you're there. Think of it like an airport. Small industries dedicated to busing people back and forth will spawn.

Besides, if we have (range extended) electric cars, that should be enough to get you to and from the train station.
posted by spiderskull at 11:06 PM on April 27, 2009


An interesting turn of events since the documentary Taken For a Ride uses interviews and public records to argue that GM deliberately killed off transportation via rail.

It took me a while to realize that Who Framed Roger Rabbit was actually about that scandal.
posted by ALongDecember at 11:08 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


The new rail system -- will you be able to check your bags and your dog? Can't do that on Amtrak between NYC and Albany.
posted by RichardS at 11:29 PM on April 27, 2009


Second, CA can't even wish to pay for high speed rail in it's present budget crisi

Hasn't California already borrowed billions of dollars to pay for high speed rail between SF and LA? I'm pretty sure San Franciscans recently voted to spend $500 million towards a high speed rail system.
posted by christhelongtimelurker at 11:35 PM on April 27, 2009


There is little in the way of public transportation in LA, everybody is out driving their cars.

I somehow survived 1985 - 1992 living in West LA without a car. Only gained 5 lbs during that time, LOL. I was a college kid so it doesn't count but where there is a market they will be a solution, LOL.

Having lived the following 8 years in mass transit nirvana, Tokyo, I've seen how mass transit should work and find the efforts of the VTA and rail here in the San Jose area to be laughably low-budget if not downright retarded.

I was riding the lightrail last month and was treated to the train getting jumped by a pair of paramilitary transit cops checking for tickets, one guarding the exit while the other demanded to see our papers. What a crock.

Truth be told the bus grid needs to be improved too. If buses here ran every 10 minutes instead of every 30 many more people would use them.

Mass transit is a great way to bust the walls we put up between the middle and lower classes in society. Conservative types whine & moan against this societal engineering but I think it's very salutary, compared to the fortress mentality of the exurbs.
posted by mrt at 11:44 PM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Okay, how many people actually *want* to buy electric cars?

Me, for one. Taking the range and battery life problems as read for a moment, I can't think of one way in which they're not superior to IC and there's every reason to believe those problems are solvable. They're far simpler, nearly silent, they don't get hot (i.e their principal output is motion rather than heat), offer regenative braking, aren't remotely as messy to work on and can accelerate like nobody's business. They move the tailpipe emissions somewhere else (not a small issue if you've ever driven a convertible and had to sit at a traffic light with a the 4" tailpipe of the truck next to you blowing exhaust literally in your face with something approaching the force of a leaf blower); and generating plants running load balanced turbines on an optimal power curve produce power a lot more efficiently so net emissions should be at least comparable if not significantly lower even after you account for line losses. Oh, and they can use green power when available. Solve the battery problem and you have a nice, nice car that I'd be thrilled to own and even more thrilled to see replacing every other car on the road.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:47 PM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm particularly eyeing the Coast Starlight that runs from LA to Seattle

I rode that a couple of times from Salinas to Washington. Goes through some very scenic country if you look past the clear-cutting. Loooong, though, 24 hrs+ on a train. But my motto when travelling is you'd be spending that time doing something boring anyway.
posted by mrt at 11:48 PM on April 27, 2009


Look to Switzerland and Japan.

What you guys call "trains" aren't even close to the mega awesomeness of modern ones.
posted by flippant at 11:49 PM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Solve the battery problem and you have a nice, nice car that I'd be thrilled to own and even more thrilled to see replacing every other car on the road.

yup. IC is like 20% energy-efficient and battery is more like 80%. So you can power your daily driving of say 100 miles for a dollar or two of juice at overnight rates. The killer cost is battery pack depreciation.

We also need ways to power this though. Nukes were thought to give us infinite energy, but there's only a few decades left of Uranium apparently. Best bet is solar infrastructure, much of the SW is in sun every day. Cloudy climes can try that fruity space solar maybe.
posted by mrt at 11:53 PM on April 27, 2009


mrt: We also need ways to power this though. Nukes were thought to give us infinite energy, but there's only a few decades left of Uranium apparently.

Thorium can also be used, and there's a lot more more of it.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:06 AM on April 28, 2009


Nukes were thought to give us infinite energy, but there's only a few decades left of Uranium apparently

I'm no expert on this but I think you're talking current (read: very nasty old tech) light water reactors which use U238. U235 which is used in breeder reactors is vastly more abundant, and thorium is more abundant still. But you still have handling, waste disposal and safety concerns, and while there are various power generation solutions which solve some of these problems none yet solve all of them, as far as I know. Perhaps someone less shallowly informed than I am can step in here.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:12 AM on April 28, 2009


Cloudy climes can try that fruity space solar maybe.

SimCity 2000 may have turned people off to that after the first time they lost a block of Light Industrial to a mis-aimed beam.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:54 AM on April 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


But, His Highness knows better than we, and He really should have control of all automobile production.

Can't do a worse job than the fuckwads in the private sector. Or are there US car manufacturers who aren't begging for taxpayer money I haven't heard of?

[Electric cars are] nearly silent

That's a huge disadvantage in urban areas, actually.
posted by rodgerd at 1:19 AM on April 28, 2009


And when you are on the train, you can work. Driving in the car, you can only try to do so much. I know if I were working as a consultant (as I did at my last job), they would prefer for me to take the train instead of drive, because it meant I could be online, working and billing customers.

This. Thisthisthisthisthis. This is why I take the train to work every morning. 3/4 of an hour sitting in traffic, paying for parking and a whole bunch of stress vs a 32 minute express ride? There's no competition. Plus I get on at the second stop on the line so I'm guaranteed a seat every morning. I sit down, listen to music and browse the web on my iPhone or watch a video or play a game. I get a little time back for me in the mornings rather than fighting traffic.
posted by Talez at 1:23 AM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


stalbach, I've ridden on the Acela a few times between NYC and Boston. It doesn't go faster than the regular train, except for about 20 minutes between Providence and Route 128, when it gets up to the full 110 mph, which is fun. (Yes, I've been on high speed trains in Europe, so I know what I'm missing.) Overall, it's certainly faster than driving between the two cities, and given the delays around the NYC airports these days, it's probably faster than flying too. Probably its closest competition is the Fung Wah and its ilk. All that being said, a couple of times the Acela I was on got caught behind *commuter trains* coming in to Boston, which slowed it down a good deal.

As for expense, it's about $120 one way between NYC and Boston--ouch. Except the regular train isn't a heck of a lot cheaper, I think $80 one way. Unless you really don't care about cost, there are numerous bus options that are better. I think some Greyhound buses now offer wifi, for instance.
posted by A dead Quaker at 1:50 AM on April 28, 2009


BTW, the Wikipedia entry on high-speed rail in the U.S. makes for some fascinating reading. The history of it goes back 75 years or more. Also interesting was Southwest Airlines' lobbying to prevent high-speed rail in Texas.
posted by A dead Quaker at 2:04 AM on April 28, 2009


We would be so much better off simply fixing up and reactivating the normal-speed track system that is sitting out there rusting in the rain -- and save our more grandiose visions for a later time.

On the one hand, I want to agree with you.

On the other.... monorail! monorail! monorail!
posted by rokusan at 2:16 AM on April 28, 2009 [5 favorites]


There is little in the way of public transportation in LA, everybody is out driving their cars.

False, and true. L.A. actually has pretty decent transportation, both above-ground buses and trains and fancy-new-subways.

But nobody uses them. It's just not cool.
posted by rokusan at 2:17 AM on April 28, 2009


Truth be told the bus grid needs to be improved too.

That's the truth. The infrastructure for buses is already there -- you probably drive on it every day. All you need is more and better buses. That, and fewer cars.

Just as with air, sea, and rail travel, cities should offer people multi-tier city bus (and subway) service. You won't get middle-class parents out of their single-family SUV cocoons if you're asking them to stand with their toddlers in the bus aisles. So give the middle class bus options that cost more than the poor can (or want to) pay, but use the middle-class fees to help pay for the basic service on which the poor depend. That is, instead of asking everyone to ride a basic bus for flat fee x, let, for example, half the people pay 2x and half the people pay 0.5x. The differences between the two services could come partly in perks, but the main difference (if you priced it carefully) would be standing room only in second class but plenty of comfortable seating in first class. You could separate services by physical barriers on the same bus (maybe upper and lower levels on a double-decker) or run two types of bus on the same route.

(Now, to make bus service faster, cut the number of cars hogging the same streets: eliminate downtown parking and raise road tolls.)
posted by pracowity at 2:35 AM on April 28, 2009


Look to Switzerland and Japan.

Sadly, looking to Switzerland and Japan demonstrates precisely why high speed rail (or indeed, any intercity passenger rail) is a non-starter in the United States, at least as the United States has been built out to date. Both have high population densities, concentrated in distinct high-density settlements (cities and towns) with well-defined centers (where you can put train stations). Both are heavily geographically constrained. Switzerland is a essentially a bunch of linear valleys branching off a not particularly wide central plain, so the arrangement of towns is basically linear. Japan can also be thought of as two basically parallel "valleys" (one between the Sea of Japan and the central mountains; the other between the mountains and the Pacific); as a bonus, most of the population is concentrated in just one of them.

The geography dictated the settlement, the geography and the settlement dictated the layout of the rail network, and the rail network is due to its arrangement inherently easy to run. The geography also made it easier for the Swiss, at least, to resist the Let's Rebuild Everything For Cars impulse that swept the United States from 1920 to present.

American cities are radial; most of the population lives in areas without defined centers. American cities are low-density; most of the population spends most of its time less than five meters off the ground. American cities are largely not linearly arranged, which is a bit ironic considering that many of the inland cities grew up around linear features (rivers and railways).

You can spend all you want on speeding up your trains (and yes, renationalizing the network, and telling the freight operators to shut the hell up and deal with the fact that the network is passenger-priority again would help a _lot_ here), but if you want to live in tracts of quarter-acre lots with one- to two-story single-family homes, you're driving cars to the airport and choking on exhaust, full stop. America has a half-century of land use mistakes to correct before it can build anything like an operable transport network.

But yeah. The trains here are unbelievably nice. :)
posted by Vetinari at 2:48 AM on April 28, 2009 [7 favorites]


While I completely agree you've kind of missed the point of the exercise. The whole point is a high speed rail corridor amongst densley populated US cities. For instance in The north east you have New York with 11+ million in the tri-state area, Boston has 7.5 million in its CSA and DC has over 5 million in the metro area.

At the moment it takes longer to get to an airport, arrive at an airport 45-60 minutes early, check in, clear security, board, wait, 45 minute actual flight but a 3-4 hour ordeal from New York to DC. Trains on the other hand you'd rock up 15-20 minutes before, stick your baggage in the baggage car and take a 1.5 hour high speed rail ride to DC with modern amenities like proper power sockets, more spacious bathrooms, bigger seats, full bar/meal/beverage service that you can go to and sit down at and chat with a few mates or associates rather than waiting for the stewardess to get around to you.

You could also remain in cellphone coverage with the right network planning and have decent Internet the whole way unlike the $20/hour Delta is going to slap you when they fancy getting around to it.

The US is perfect for high-speed intercity rail. They just need to grow a pair and do it.
posted by Talez at 3:55 AM on April 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


In high school my little group of nerdy freinds and I called ourselves "Public Transport" because all the girls would say that we would make great boyfriends yet we never got any dates, just as everyone says public tranist would be great for everyone else to ride.

(I'm actually married now and ride Metro every day)
posted by Pollomacho at 5:04 AM on April 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


Justinian: "Why the hell spend money on a low-speed rail system that failed the first time around?"

"Failed" seems like a very oversimplified way of putting it.

All other things being equal, low-speed rail was competing with cheap gas. It won't have that problem in the future.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:18 AM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


"To be blunt about it, this is perfectly fucking stupid... We would be so much better off simply fixing up and reactivating the normal-speed track system that is sitting out there rusting in the rain -- and save our more grandiose visions for a later time." - James Howard Kunstler

That later time is now Mr. Kunstler... not my fault that GM's top people have been shooting the corporation in the foot for the past decade (or more), all while Toyota and other makers come up with hybrids, Tesla out in California (America) brews up electric vehicles that make your Volt seem like a spark, and some Tata Nano comes out promising fantastic gas mileage (not to forget the X-Prize race to 100 mpg).

I can only pray that those I know at the local plant here either get spared or have a way to live until things get better economically. This for everyone else employed there too.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 5:45 AM on April 28, 2009


> Has anyone used it?
(The Acela that is).

Yes. Don't get me started.

I live and work in Stamford, CT - a busy little city just outside New York. Despite having a five platform station, there is currently no way to get to any of the New York airports by train only.
How did that happen?

Well I lie ... there is one ... the so called 'Acela' to Newark International. In theory, despite the 1 hour and 35 minutes with a long stop in Manhattan to cover 50 miles or so, this is still one of the best non-automobile airport options available to me; but having tried to take it personally or had visiting friends and family ride it, I have found it to be extremely unreliable with extra delays of around an hour being fairly typical.
So I don't use it or recommend it any more.

I suspect that it is something to do with low-priority sharing of the same track with commuter trains, which are often backed up at rush hour.

In comparison, from what I hear, the TGV in France or bullet train in Japan are usually within a couple of minutes of schedule. Or maybe I just have high-speed train envy.
posted by duncan42 at 6:03 AM on April 28, 2009


The US is perfect for high-speed intercity rail.

Perfect? Seems like the opposite to me. Most of our cities are too far away for high-speed to even matter. And the Northeast Corridor, where trains do work, would require billions of dollars just to get incremental speed gains.
posted by smackfu at 6:08 AM on April 28, 2009


Despite having a five platform station, there is currently no way to get to any of the New York airports by train only.

You can get to JFK too. It's just that the hub-and-spoke networks of rail mean that you have to go into midtown NYC to get anywhere. It's far easier to just hop over the Whitestone Bridge.
posted by smackfu at 6:12 AM on April 28, 2009


Okay, how many people actually *want* to buy American cars?
posted by pompomtom at 1:08 AM on April 28


Europeans. Four of the ten bestselling cars in Europe are GM or Ford, including the top-seller. GM's former CEO did quite a good job boosting sales through the Opel Vauxhall brand in established and emerging markets in Europe prior to the economic crisis. But I don't suppose that's what you meant by "American" because those cars are built in Europe?

But then I also don't suppose you mean the millions of Hondas and Toyotas that are designed and built by Americans either, because those cars would be Japanese I suppose?

The US is perfect for high-speed intercity rail. They just need to grow a pair and do it.
posted by Talez at 6:55 AM on April 28


No, it isn't. Don't assume (a) everyone is single, (b) lives in New York, or (c) wants to. Most people don't live along the East coast, and even if they did, the geography isn't ideally suited for high speed rail, because you have to stop the train every 75 miles. Boston-NY-Philadelphia-Wilmington-Baltimore-DC. Furthermore, Amtrak trains on that corridor are already 1 hour faster than cars for a 2-3 hr trip. The reason people drive is because it is still cheaper and more convenient than coordinating local train schedules, cabs, etc. We need more efficient, less polluting decentralized transport.

And, sure, I would buy an electric car. Why not?
posted by Pastabagel at 6:19 AM on April 28, 2009


>because those cars would be Japanese I suppose?

You tell me how you want to count it... either way, they're obviously being sold below cost or the industry wouldn't be falling to bits, would it?
posted by pompomtom at 6:34 AM on April 28, 2009


Spain's Bullet Train Changes Nation -- Fast
Spain is on track to bypass France and Japan to have the world's biggest network of ultrafast trains by the end of next year, drastically changing Spaniards' traveling habits.
posted by kliuless at 6:54 AM on April 28, 2009


The best solution for high speed rail would be if we started dropping the rails in the middle of the interstate highways we already have. If there's a central divider, put it there. If not, rip out two lanes and make room. A high speed rail down the middle of I95 on the east coast would be fantastic IMO. And only stop at major cities, everywhere else, the train should be moving at 150+.
posted by ShadowCrash at 7:21 AM on April 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


(Now, to make bus service faster, cut the number of cars hogging the same streets: eliminate downtown parking and raise road tolls.)

There's a lot of talk, especially in opposition of light rail proposals, about dedicated bus lanes and traffic light controls to create "light rail on wheels," or bus rapid transit, in lieu of light rail. Less upfront investment, similar results, and it can prepare the way for light rail in the future. There's Curbita and TransMilenio as good examples. And in the far, far future (Q4 of this year) Heathrow Airport will be opening a personal rapid transit system, which could be implemented through the same corridors acquired for bus rapid transit or light rail (though not necessarily as it is presented in the linked video).
posted by effwerd at 7:35 AM on April 28, 2009


so called 'Acela' to Newark International

You're talking about the regular NEC regional service. Acela doesn't stop at EWR.
posted by oaf at 7:39 AM on April 28, 2009


Of course, while recounting the crimes of the automakers, in addition to killing off rail, you should also include the killing off of American citizens with leaded gasoline.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:41 AM on April 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


"We would be so much better off simply fixing up and reactivating the normal-speed track system that is sitting out there rusting in the rain..."

Oh, man. I love me some Kunstler ranting but this is possibly the most recto-cranially inverted thing I've seen attributed to him in at least a month. Why the crap do I want my tax money to be spent on a system that transforms a 1.5 hour flight into 12+ hours of watching cows and artichokes roll by? That sounds like an evil genius plan to force everyone into individual automobiles to me.

I gather you east coast people actually get some kind of utility out of low speed rail because your states are only like three blocks long or something and when you run out to 7-11 to buy a case of Schlitz you cross five state lines, but the rest of the country is so goddamn huge that activating 50MPH rail is like lighting rolled-up billion dollar bills on fire so you can use them to start the burn on your trillion dollar money mountain, and then using that pile to build up steam pressure in your solid gold water tank so you can power the steam catapult you built to fire the entire US treasury into the sun.
posted by majick at 8:20 AM on April 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


True but it's so huge that 150 mph rail doesn't do much good either. Still takes 6 hours to get anywhere.
posted by smackfu at 9:33 AM on April 28, 2009


Or are there US car manufacturers who aren't begging for taxpayer money I haven't heard of?

You've probably heard of them, but Ford isn't begging for taxpayer money.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 9:56 AM on April 28, 2009


"No, it isn't. Don't assume (a) everyone is single, (b) lives in New York, or (c) wants to. Most people don't live along the East coast"

We have high speed rail here going between Albuquerque and Santa Fe (a 60 mile commute) as well as the base in Abq. It's been a great success, particularly because it helps people in Rio Rancho who work at the base get to their jobs without a car. The long term plan is to extend it up to Taos, where I live, which is about 1 1/2 hour north of Santa Fe. This is a very spread out area, but if you plan the lines right, it makes a lot of difference in cutting down traffic and commute times.
posted by krinklyfig at 10:22 AM on April 28, 2009


"Pontiac will always have this lovable pile of crap to its credit."

Man I love the Fiero. One of the best overall designs to ever come out. Too bad it was crippled with internal infighting, typical GM reliability and corvette protectionism. Too bad Chrysler didn't have it, it might have had a longer life. The common block 2.5 turbo would have been a great engine for the platform.

"In this day of the ubiquitous cellphone, there's no reason we shouldn't have ultra-efficient small buses shuttling people with far greater convenience and lower cost than the fixed-route monster busses we currently use."

A lot of the people riding the bus can't afford cells.
posted by Mitheral at 10:51 AM on April 28, 2009


"Why the crap do I want my tax money to be spent on a system that transforms a 1.5 hour flight into 12+ hours of watching cows and artichokes roll by?"

This is what I do every time I go back down south from NYC. Taking the train is no-hassles, sometimes I arrive 5 minutes before the train leaves and I walk right up to it and get on, then I set back and use my laptop and cell phone to make productive use of my 12 hours of travel time.

I get to see both beautiful farm land and impressive urban decay. Sometimes I bring little baggies of X or Y with me on the train, I always bring my own drinks, often alcoholic. During the 12 hours, I can go to the lounge car and meet new people, have a snack. There are smoke breaks that can be effectively utilized. I usually end up tracking out several new songs during the trip, trading music with fellow passengers, and enjoy not being hassled by airport police because my name "physically resembles" the name of someone arrested by the FBI. Did I mention I can bring as much liquid on the train as I want?

I guess it depends on one's travel priorities. I am a man of leisure and have no problem taking a long night train ride where I can enjoy myself and spend most of my time in transit rather than being treated like a terrorist. I suppose if you are in a hurry and like ineffective security theater and can't amuse yourself for a long time the plane is a better choice.
posted by fuq at 11:05 AM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


We would be so much better off simply fixing up and reactivating the normal-speed track system that is sitting out there rusting in the rain -- and save our more grandiose visions for a later time.

This attitude is prevalent and I find it intensely annoying. The U.S. rail network is just fine; it's not "rusting in the rain" in any sense. It's humming along pretty much at absolutely peak capacity. Last year, one of the greatest limiting factors on rail traffic was a shortage of locomotives.

The U.S. has the most advanced and probably the most efficient rail network in the world, when it comes to what rail is exceptionally good at: moving lots of very heavy stuff around very cheaply. The European freight rail system doesn't even come close to the volume and velocity of that in the U.S. (which is unsurprising, because the over-land distances involved are typically shorter and rail doesn't pay off until you hit 500+ mi or so).

I'd love to see a resurgence of long-haul passenger rail as much as anyone else, but it's just not going to happen as long as aviation is remotely practical. Making trains competitive with jet aircraft over the kind of intercity distances that are common in the U.S. outside of the NE and CA corridors would require so much new development that I'm not sure what you'd get at the end would really even be identifiable as "trains" anymore. You'd need some sort of Manhattan Project to do it, and — much as a near-supersonic passenger train would be fucking awesome — there are really better things we could spend money on that would yield more dividends for the public.

In particular, short-haul intercity and especially enhanced commuter rail seem like they would be the most beneficial developments; they take the place of everyday driving rather than once-in-a-while jet travel, they use existing rail ROWs, conventional locomotives and rolling stock, and they are frankly a pretty easy sell to people stuck with long commutes. Plus, we know how to do commuter rail, it's just a matter of getting the funding together.

Sure, heavy commuter rail isn't as sexy as high-speed inter-city systems, but they are practical, useful, and affordable with only small tax increases. (The VRE commuter rail system in the DC-metro part of Virginia is funded mostly from a small additional tax on motor fuel in the areas it serves, I believe.)

Once we have worked out how to take a train from an "edge city" or suburban area into an urban one — a route that we know there's demand for, and where the competition is frequently nothing but automobiles crawling along expressways at a few miles per hour — then we can start talking about high-speed lines. But if we can't fix the relatively easy problem of commuting we have virtually no business trying to compete with the airlines, especially if it risks messing up the national freight rail network, which actually works quite well.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:36 AM on April 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Swiss do not do high-speed rail. Instead, they do LOTS of ordinary (or slower) trains. I have twice-hourly service to Luzern and Zurich (I live in the middle. "Twice" is Inter-Regio service, not the S-bahns, which stop everywhere). The trains are very nice, just not very fast.

The Swiss seem a bit silly, to me. They are making hoopla over finally opening a fking expressway from Zug to Zurich. This seems major stupid, to me. But then, I mostly hate cars.

GM: I hate cars. But I will shed a tear if GM goes away. When I was in 6th grade (back while the dinosaurs were still dying off), I recall being taught that GM was the biggest corporation in the world, and would never die.

However, all this yap yap about GM seems to conveniently ignore the elephant in the room: The fault is largely not GM's fault, at all. It is the fault of the banking collapse. People that want new cars can't get loans. That's also why Toyota isn't doing so well, either. Granted, GM wouldn't be so terribly bad off if they had done a better job.

Besides, let us address the other issue relating to GM: IF GM goes bankrupt, so goes the largest labor union in America. Beware of folks mouthing off about letting GM go down, their motivation may be anti-labor, not anti-GM, nor anti-bailout.

Another thing which puzzles me. Once upon a time, the United States used to talk about the strategic importance of industry. I am quite puzzled whatever happened to that notion. America is terribly weakened this way, already. What kind of national defence have you got, when you depend on manufacturing technology from foreign lands?

Why should GM be saved? Perhaps because it is one of the few things still being manufactured in the USA? Real wealth is manufactured, not generated by paper transactions. Or did the banking crisis fail to make that understood?
posted by Goofyy at 12:10 PM on April 28, 2009


The Obama administration has released an artist's conception of the High Speed Rail plan.
posted by ALongDecember at 1:58 PM on April 28, 2009


[Electric cars are] nearly silent

That's a huge disadvantage in urban areas, actually.


I predict a multi-million dollar industry for selling "car tones."
You will be able to fit your electric car with the latest
hit tunes to alert unwary pedestrians of your pending approach.
Or maybe they will be called "whirr tones".
Anyhow, you'll be able to download them at iCar.
posted by sour cream at 2:17 PM on April 28, 2009


Bill Cosby was all over car music.
posted by Mitheral at 3:02 PM on April 28, 2009


Real wealth is manufactured, not generated by paper transactions. Or did the banking crisis fail to make that understood?

Only physical things have value? Sorry, but that's a load of crap.

America's cultural output has been driving our progress for a while. Hollywood, video games, software, etc. They myth and image that only physical work has value is a powerful one, but it's not true.

I'm a fan of letting GM go down and I have immediate family who work for the automotive industry. My father has been working for Delphi for over 30 years now. They just announced they're cutting retiree benefits. Fuck the domestic auto industry. They pushed SUVs and other large cars on buyers for too long (who were all too willing to buy them when they couldn't afford them) but they never looked ahead. They continually killed public transportation projects, they fought tooth and nail against CAFE standards, they tried to kill the electric car. The automotive industry doesn't give a damn about us.

I love Detroit and I love Michigan, and unfortunately they will both suffer greatly if GM or Chrysler go under. But there is already a growing entrepreneurial spirit in the state that is filling the cracks. The state will survive, recognizing again that it has great natural beauty.
posted by formless at 3:09 PM on April 28, 2009


i live in northern virginia, outside of dc, and work for a company headquartered in manhattan. i've taken the acela often enough to join their frequent traveler program, but i've also flown a reasonable amount as well. i live a block away from a metro station, which spoils me somewhat, but even though DCA is a 10 minute cab ride away, it's vastly more convenient to go via the train, where it's essentially door to door service.

this seems just like a nice bonus for urbanites such as myself, and it is, but it has a larger advantage. i used to live in somerville, ma, which is a suburb of boston, sort of one layer back, behind cambridge. it is a very blue collar town and lots of parts of it were hurting really badly, property values were falling off, and you were starting to see the beginings of urban blight. one of the ways that they've turned this around is by extending the green line further into somerville and beyond. this has provided a massive boost to the areas that had previously been falling off and really helped to start turning things around. (it's been years since i left -- have they managed to fix the bridges yet?)

the same advantage applies to a NE-corridor high speed rail system. it's expensive to build, but once you build it, it's relatively cheap to extend it to new communities, and when you do, it's a massive boost for those communities. if you have a dedicated high speed network from boston to dc, it's easy to imagine it extending further down the coast, and think of the advantage to cities like charlotte in having a direct, high speed, low-friction link to dc and manhattan.
posted by feloniousmonk at 3:33 PM on April 28, 2009


That's a huge disadvantage in urban areas, actually.

People always say that, from a modern car I mostly hear tire noise anyway rather than engine noise, and that would be the same: you certainly can't count on any particular car emitting a particular amount of engine noise anyway, so i think this is a bit overstated.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:55 PM on April 28, 2009


It's similar to the chestnut that DRLs were going to cause carnage across the nation because people weren't going to be able to tell which way tires were pointing.
posted by Mitheral at 6:44 PM on April 28, 2009


formless: The things you list are all physical products, not paper. The fact they can exist as digital media doesn't make them less physical, or less manufactured/made. Or did you think banks were engaged in cultural output? I didn't think you thought that. To be sure, I hadn't thought of the things you mention, but then, they don't represent as much revenue as cars.

I hate to see my point glossed over so casually, because it's really extremely important. America imports the vast majority of the hard goods it consumes. This isn't sustainable, simple as that.
posted by Goofyy at 1:40 AM on April 29, 2009


[Electric cars are] nearly silent

That's a huge disadvantage in urban areas, actually.


Not if you actually live in an urban area and you'd like things to be quiet and smokeless.

If engine noise helps to warn people that a deadly machine is approaching, find a controllable substitute for that warning, don't use it as an excuse to allow the noise to continue. Pedestrians ought to look both ways if they want to stay alive, but some of us are childen, some of us are old, and some of us are deaf or blind or crippled. If you take a couple tons of metal through a place where people walk, you have to do it safely and quietly and not expect everyone else to be warned by the racket you make and dive out of your way.
posted by pracowity at 3:18 AM on April 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


If you take a couple tons of metal through a place where people walk, you have to do it safely and quietly and not expect everyone else to be warned by the racket you make and dive out of your way.

I imagine that societies will divide on this issue the same way they do on jaywalking. In car-centric societies, such as the USA and Australia, crossing a road against the lights is a fineable offense, whether or not there is any traffic. In the UK, however, it is perfectly legal to do so, and presumably enshrined in the Magna Carta or Anglo-Saxon common law. (They tried to ban jaywalking in the 1960s; it lasted about two weeks.) In the Netherlands, where they're planting trees in the middle of intersections to encourage drivers to pay attention, you're probably encouraged to walk on the road.
posted by acb at 3:49 AM on April 29, 2009


In car-centric societies, such as the USA and Australia, crossing a road against the lights is a fineable offense, whether or not there is any traffic.

Maybe this should be a fineable offense, but only if there is a button you could press and you just didn't press it. Pedestrians should always be able to tell the lights (with pedestrian crossing buttons) that they need to move through an intersection, traffic sensors should always detect when cars are coming, and then the lights could always settle the problem appropriately.

Gadgetry could also be used to focus warnings better. All pedestrians (including blind and deaf people) could wear things that warn them of oncoming vehicles if the vehicles emitted a constant low-range radio warning signal and a special signal for when the horn was sounded, and people not walking in or near traffic could turn those detectors off and hear nothing. Children's toys and pet collars could light up when cars approach. If the detectors could also tell which direction the warning vehicle is traveling -- towards you or away from you -- they could be set to ignore warnings from vehicles that are not approaching, or to make a different sort of noise in such cases.

And car horns? They haven't changed since they were invented. If a car horn sent out a low-range radio signal that was detected by other cars within range, it could trigger a noise inside the other cars, where it is most needed, and that noise could legally be required to override any sound system in the car (maybe cut the volume to the sound system).

Focused warnings might mean that you could reduce unfocused warnings. For instance, as a percentage of pedestrian traffic, few pedestrians are blind, but we have those noise-emitting pedestrian crossing signals everywhere making noise all day and night. If blind people wore a detector that sounded when they were at pedestrian crossings, the unfocused noise could be eliminated and the blind people could wear, for example, language-specific devices that would tell them "Look Right" or "Cross Now" or "Stop" or "Hurry the fuck up, gramps" in their own language.
posted by pracowity at 4:57 AM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


> You can get to JFK too.

Tried hard not to struggle in the grip of inconvenient facts.

> You're talking about the regular NEC regional service. Acela doesn't stop at EWR.

Starts to gnaw leg.
posted by duncan42 at 5:12 AM on April 29, 2009


I still don't understand how it takes $15.4 billion dollars to keep GM afloat for a couple of fucking months. Meanwhile companies like Tesla Motors have to defend themselves from just asking for a simple loan (not bailout) of a couple hundred million.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:01 AM on April 29, 2009


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