On the Rails Again: Euro Trains are No Amtrak

Another in the series of occasional rants by the Mad Jubilado.

Over two hundred kilometers per hour? That’s more than 124 mph! Well, we seemed to be going pretty fast.  It was no Shinkansen (the Japanese “Bullet Train”) rocketing the 330 miles from Tocho-Mai Station in Tokyo to Kyoto between 150 and 200 mph. In the U.S., the contrast is striking.  Amtrak passenger trains dare not go over about 65 mph, and with good reason. The European trains are quiet, fast, and comfortable.

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Dutch Tulips

In Tokyo, trains routinely pull up to the platform and stop exactly as scheduled, to the second, after their high-speed runs. Departure times are equally precise. In Europe, they are very close. In the U.S., well, things are different. Here, passenger trains have been relegated to a second-class status, behind the more profitable freight trains. They are not particularly comfortable, fast, or on time. Moving all that coal, oil, and Chinese manufactured consumer goods imported by U.S. corporations, gets first billing. Gotta sell that junk to Americans who have lost their well-paid manufacturing jobs and now work as Walmart greeters or fast food cashiers. That is the priority, not public transportation.

Like so much here, public transportation systems have been ‘privatized,’ leaving the public interest behind. The railroads were created to help stimulate western expansion. The federal government gave wide swaths of land to railroad companies to encourage their development. Huge profits were made not only on the rails themselves but in the many land deals that followed. Private corporate exploitation of the commonwealth continues apace, with little challenge.

Now, the railroad companies act like it is their God-given right to exploit those properties in their own interest, the public be damned. Contrary to the corporate “free market” ideology, most of the magnificent technological developments of the industrial era were subsidized by the public purse. The prime beneficiaries have been the private corporations that took advantage of government largess. Any public benefit was secondary, though there have been many. Unlike Europe, where public infrastructure is valued and maintained, here it is all about the next subsidy or tax break for the corporations and super-rich, to be paid for by squeezing public infrastructure and services ever more tightly as the national debt grows.

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On the Rails to Haarlem

The speed, smooth ride, and quiet on the electric European rail lines got my attention. I don’t remember a more comfortable train ride anywhere else. Then I saw the flat panel display on the forward bulkhead in the rather new passenger car. It displayed the speed in kilometers per hour and the time of arrival at the next station. We were on the TGV, the Euro Rail line, heading from Lyon, France to Haarlem, Netherlands.

The French countryside is a beautiful green in springtime. The tulips are in bloom all across the flat lowlands of Holland. What color! The mix of architecture in passing towns and cities, ranging from medieval to modern, is a bit dissonant in its charm. It is all so lovely to watch through the large windows of our passing train. It is almost as if nothing has changed in the world…but it has.

If there is to be a solution to the converging crises of climate chaos, poverty, resource wars, failed agriculture, mass starvation and forced migrations, it must include transforming public infrastructure to create low-carbon forms of transportation, powered by solar and wind-generated electricity and human energy. Trains, trams, and bicycles must become an essential element of a new life strategy, if we let it. The U.S. is so far behind. We wallow in political fights over false narratives while the planet burns. Making significant progress on issues like public transportation will require a political revolution.

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