Monday, October 20, 2008

Amtrak editorial

On September 21, 2001—a couple of weeks after after 9/11—I took a train ride from Los Angeles to Missouri. The purpose of my trip was to visit my young son, but the purpose of going by train was to see if America’s Amtrak system was a viable alternative to travel via flying bombs. It was, more or less, if you didn’t mind trading time for money. The ticket prices were lower than the airlines', and Amtrak’s Southwestern Chief was far more comfortable; the coach seats were larger than a 1st class airline seat; the scenery was gorgeous, and the service was superb, but it took three days and the nearest train station was an hour’s drive from my final destination.

But watching the American landscape pass by the train window, I realized that the bombs weren’t just in the air. Every town held filling stations and gas mains that could blow up whole neighborhoods if ignited. Gasoline tankers dotted the highways that ran parallel to the tracks. Buried pipelines paralleled the tracks, running to the potential superbombs of tank farms. Railroad cars full of combustible petroleum-based fertilizer lined the rail sidings.

As we neared Knob Knoster, Missouri, passengers gaped as two B-2 bombers overflew us, so low that I watched their batlike shadows crossing the fields toward us. The giant bombers had probably just taken off from nearby Whiteman Air Force Base, on their way to Afghanistan.

Each B-2 costs $1.3 billion dollars. Those two planes up there were worth more than Afghanistan’s prewar gross national product. The smart bombs that they were probably carrying cost $20,000 each. Add the cost of fuel to fly halfway around the world, of crew training, of maintenance and of support facilities—there probably wasn’t a target in Afghanistan that couldn’t be replaced for far less than the cost of destroying it. But determined terrorists could kill thousands with little more than matches. How were we going to win this war?

Since that day, I’ve watched as our country tried in vain to pursue a military solution to the terror problem. We do seem to have diverted their attention from our homeland to Iraq, but the problem remains the same: when there’s a lot of energy lying around and a lot of hatred, it’s always easier to blow things up than to defend against being blown up. Take a stray artillery shell, plant it on a road with a cell-phone-triggered fuse, knock out a tank. Take out a hundred Shiite pilgrims or a busload of Iraqi army recruits with a few pounds of explosives in a vest.

Lately, finally, the focus has begun to shift from military solutions to energy solutions. Barack Obama, for instance, is calling for “independence from foreign oil” within ten years. That’s closer to the solution, but still not quite there. We don’t just need independence from foreign oil. We need independence from the need for so much energy. The U.S. uses an estimated 20 percent of the world’s commercially-available energy. A hydrogen-powered car is still a rolling bomb. And let’s not even go into the risks of more nuclear power plants.

Trains are part of the real solution: no current technology can move people or goods with less energy than a train. But they’re only a part. The answers range from technological--replace the movement of goods with the movement of information, wherever possible--to economic--deglobalize so that goods, whenever possible, are produced near their consumers--to socio-cultural--build communities where people live, shop and work within walking distance. Across the country, with relatively little fanfare, various people are working on those solutions. They need to get more attention.

That afternoon in September, 2001, the train finally pulled into the decrepit brick station at Jefferson City, Missouri. Waiting on the curbside with his grandfather was my 5-year-old son. He waved. He was small and blond and smiling.

We have to start diffusing the bombs.

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