Finding opportunity in this crisis

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Thursday, April 2, 2020

As I and everyone I know endure this pandemic together, I keep reminding myself that every crisis presents opportunities — in this case, opportunities abound for positive long-term changes in our lives and in how our economy and society function. Before I get into that, though, I want to take a moment to echo our editor Jim Wrinn in expressing my deepest gratitude and encouragement to all the front-line workers in the railroad and rail transit industries who are keeping trains running to transport those who must travel and to deliver the goods we need. Jim called out freight railroaders and all the staff and volunteers of tourist railroads and rail museums who worry about the survival of these beloved institutions. I would add to that list passenger rail and transit employees, many of whom risk their health by continuing to work to provide essential mobility.

Arriving at Washington, DC Union Station on Amtrak's Crescent on the morning of March 17, returning from a long weekend in North Carolina on what is likely to be my last train trip until the pandemic has abated. All photos by the author.
I also want to thank the U.S. Senate, whose members worked across the aisle to include in the CARES Act relief package that was enacted last week enough funds to help Amtrak and transit agencies make up for the revenue lost from would-be passengers being unable to travel, commute or engage in social activities. The $1.018 billion for Amtrak and $25 billion for transit in the bill (the most ever appropriated to transit in a single piece of legislation) is simply a lifeline to allow existing services to continue. If this crisis lasts as long as most experts are expecting — several months — much more emergency assistance will be needed.

Even after COVID-19 is no longer a threat to most people and it’s safe to travel and congregate again, the economic toll the pandemic has taken will be felt for many years. Some have speculated that we may be facing a slump on the scale of the Great Depression. Therefore, longer-term measures to stimulate economic activity will be just as important as short-term relief efforts. Rail and transit are well-positioned to be centerpieces in America’s recovery, given that every dollar spent on passenger rail capital returns at least three dollars in value to local and regional economies and that rail and transit spending offers a huge bang for the buck in terms of direct and indirect job creation. A robust train network also offers critical redundancy and, as part of a well-maintained and interconnected infrastructure, helps the country be more resilient in the face of future crises. 

An empty Amfleet II cafe car on Amtrak's northbound Crescent, somewhere between Charlottesville and Orange, Va. on March 17. There were only about 120 coach passengers on board, but everyone who patronized the cafe took their food back to their seats.
At a time where we are all required to stay home as much as possible and forego many shared activities that we enjoy — a list on which, for me, train travel ranks high — I am reminded of just how enjoyable a social experience train travel can be. I hope that when this is all over and people are itching to reconnect, there will be a greater appreciation for this aspect of train travel and a desire to better facilitate strangers becoming friends in the design of the next generations of railcars.

In several previous columns, I have speculated as to what kind of event or situation it would take to trigger the political will necessary for a true passenger rail renaissance. Perhaps this is it. I would certainly give anything for a needed paradigm shift to not have to come at the expense of lives lost, an overtaxed health care system, massive disruption of people’s daily lives, and all the other misfortune being experienced now. But since we have little power to change the circumstances, perhaps we should be thankful for the opportunity that these times present to re-evaluate things and to emerge on the other side a better country with a transportation system that is reliable and diversified enough to help us take on the other challenges this century has thrown and will throw at us.

Disclaimer: The author is a freelance contributor to Trains and an independent consultant specializing in writing, research and communications with a focus on passenger rail and transit. His clients include Herzog Transit Services, Inc. and the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators. He also works with travel companies to help organize and promote charter train trips in the US, is an avid and frequent train traveler, and serves on the volunteer national advisory body of the Rail Passengers Association. The views expressed in Observation Tower are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions or business interests of any of his clients or associations.

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