Saturday, May 16, 2015

Amtrak and bikes

shoot-358It’s been a rough patch for those of us who travel by bike and Amtrak. Fatalities, injuries, and a lot of questions. Chief in my mind among them is: why?

The crash in Philadelphia was a monstrous tragedy. Leaving the cause of the accident aside, whether it was operator error or equipment or what, the technology is available to prevent it from happening. Positive Train Control was invented to prevent this exact sort of thing from happening. Of course, it isn’t active yet because the budget isn’t there. And immediately after the accident, Amtrak’s budget was slashed. Because the best way to solve a problem caused by not having enough money is to give it less money. At least that’s the thinking on Capitol Hill.

Conservatives hate Amtrak. It’s always lumped in with the National Endowment for the Arts and PBS as things that should be cut. The combined budgets of these three agencies accounts for 0.03% of total government spending, and yet these are the ones the conservatives always want to cut first. It’s hard to not frame this as some kind of extension of a class war, taking things away just to make the have not’s lives a little more difficult.

Amtrak’s annual budget was cut to 1.1 billion dollars, give or take. Which sounds like a lot of money until you put it in perspective. That’s about half what the Department of Defense spends in a day. More is needed. Most of the rolling stock on the long distance trains out west dates from the last time there was money in the 1970s. The locomotives are newer, dating from the 1990s. There’s not going to be much expansion anytime soon, since there’s just not enough equipment to do it. Ridership is higher than it’s ever been, and trains routinely sell out. It could break even or might even turn a profit if it had money to expand.

shoot-359Riding a bike gets short shrift as well. Denver has all of a mile or so of protected bike lane. There’s a three-foot law requiring drivers give a cyclist 3 feet when passing, but I’ve never seen it enforced. When I tried to report a driver for violating it, there was no interest on the part of the police in doing anything about it. Even when someone on a bike gets hurt, the driver just gets a slap on the wrist. A triathlete in Boulder wound up going through the window of a car that pulled in front of her and stopped while she was going down grade at speed, and even though the driver had a history of reckless driving, he was only fined. The triathlete will carry the scars of that accident on her face for the rest of her life and was lucky to survive. Her life is radically changed, but that was just worthy of a fine.

I guess the message is clear. If you ride a bike or take a train, you don’t count for much. It’s enough to make me want to do these things more, not just because I enjoy them, but to continue to be a thorn in the side of the powerful.

Amtrak and bikes

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