walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_New Departures_, Anthony Perl

Subtitled: Rethinking Rail Passenger Policy in the Twenty-First Century

Not on the kindle, I waffled pretty hard before I bought this, but I am ultimately very glad that I did. Anthony Perl is "associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary", so while this book is a very wonky political science analysis of policy choices in Japan (the bullet train/Shinkansen), France (TGV) and Germany (ICE), that analysis is in support of a detailed discussion of attempts to similarly reinvent passenger rail in North America (Ohio, Texas, Florida, the Northeast Corridor) and why those attempts have not succeeded in the same way. He does include some discussion of the disaster that was privatization of British Rail. Finally, he discusses a variety of ways that passenger rail might move out of the policy deadlock it has been in in Canada and the US since the 1970s.

Because the book was published in 2002, there is an afterword regarding 9/11 and its immediate impact on air travel and speculation about its possible future impacts on travel modes.

The book is liberally sprinkled with important insights, such as this paragraph on page 109:

"Other modes, including public transit, saw Amtrak as a budgetary rival and did not want to admit one more player with a huge potential appetite for infrastructure spending to the federal transportation financing mechanism. Congressional jurisdictions meant that Amtrak would have to move either all or part of its legislative supervision from the House Commerce Committee to Public Works, a transfer that both committees resisted."

R. and I were wondering a day or two ago whether diesel bought for locomotives had a gas tax and, if so, where it went. The answer appeared in this book, altho further research indicated it was only a slice of the puzzle. There has been a .1 cent tax to the LUST fund (ha. yeah, dealing with underground storage tanks) and an additional amount some years above that for deficit reduction. That tax has never been directed toward roads, iron or asphalt.

I was pleased to note that in one of his scenarios for going forward (Niche Markets: Subnational Leadership and Private-Sector Direction), he talks about provinces and/or states putting together regional operations. In his scenario, private operators would have been involved, which I don't think happened. But the Vancouver, Seattle, Portland line is up and running today, since "British Columbia could [indeed] find a way to work with the states of Oregon and Washington." In his opinion, this wasn't very likely unless "subnational governments place some serious incentives on the table". Or just flat out fund and run it themselves.

When this book was written/published, Amtrak was operating in an effort to at least show an operating profit; the law then said that if it did not by 2003, it would have to put together a liquidation plan. Of course, by the time 2003 rolled around, the world was a different place, as the afterword noticed.

I would hope that if Perl wrote this or a similar book today, he would be backing away somewhat from the focus on public/private partnerships that permeates this book. If the health care debate is any indication, we are in the middle of a change in direction of the 30 year political pendulum in the US -- and there's an increasing amount of skepticism out there about the reliability, efficiency and safety of goods and services supplied by the market. It's hard to know just what the future will bring, as everything from increased regulation to increased involvement of the government in providing goods and services is currently on the table. While Perl could see that the future might bring oil price spikes, our recent past has brought them to everyone's attention.

It's far from clear to me whether there's anything like a general market for this book. Even if you're kinda into trains, it's not obvious that slogging through something this wonky is going to be fun. There's not much narrative thrust, and the book makes a lot more sense if you had substantial background knowledge of the history of trains in North America (altho it is worth noting that some points the author makes probably make _less_ sense if you know a lot about the history -- there were a few clunkers in the book, but nothing to really detract from its overall utility). For me, however, it was absolutely worthwhile, even as a very slow read that I had some issues with. I'd read more by Perl.
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