Railway reverie

“A something in a summer’s day,” begins an Emily Dickinson poem that praises the long, lazy contemplation that often launches and lingers in July shade.

Squinting against the westward sun in my daily drive home, and glancing at the railroad tracks parallel to the highway, I’m drawn once again to dreaming about rural rail travel in the Natural State.

First, let’s lay a few facts on the brightly sunlit table.

Remember that TV commercial a few years back when gasoline prices were high in which a freight-train company boasted of moving a ton of cargo 400 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel? It’s more than just true; it’s conservative. The national average is around 430 miles per gallon, and some lines exceed 500 miles. A ton is 2,000 pounds. Or roughly the weight of a dozen people.

Passenger rail travel is 17 times safer than automobile travel, based on fatalities per billion miles. A dozen people dead in one year from train wrecks is a bad year. More than 30,000 people killed in car crashes is an annual average.

Texting and driving is bad business. It’s a horrible habit that has already killed and injured countless people. It’s also not going away. Forget stats, just look around next time you’re in your vehicle. Or look in the mirror.

Arkansas is a rural state, with regional population centers serving smaller communities in hub-and-spoke fashion. Whether northeast, northwest or central–people in little towns travel to big cities for work, health care, college, shopping, dining and entertainment.

The mode of transportation is almost exclusively the automobile. Many roads run right alongside railways.

Arkansans love their cars, or more accurately, their trucks and SUVs. When Popular Mechanicsmagazine published its list of “Unofficial State Cars” last year, the GMC Yukon prevailed in Arkansas, where it sells at 407 percent of its national average.

Nobody ever said automobiles were cheap, and they aren’t. The AAA estimates the average annual cost of owning a vehicle at $8,000. With well over 2.5 million vehicle registrations in Arkansas, discounting for commercial and public registrations, our collective yearly tab could still be in the $15 billion range.

Measured in annual miles driven per licensed driver, we’re a little above the national average at 15,000 per year. We criss-cross our state in two-, three- and four-hour driving trips frequently and regularly. Football season features throngs of motorists flocking to and from Fayetteville, Little Rock and Jonesboro.

Many people make weekly business trips to the state capital from those same corners.

Viewed in an aggregate analysis, all those facts present a bona fide opportunity. Here and now, 148 years after the ceremonial Golden Spike celebrated transcontinental unity, it’s time for Arkansans to come into the age of rail travel.

Granted, since rail passenger service was never prevalent here, the notion feels foreign. But habits can be changed, and should be when they save money, energy and lives.

Then there’s the cost. Trains have always been viewed as prohibitively expensive to set up, run and maintain. But innovative inspiration arrived via Vermont, where an outfit called AllEarth Rail recently unveiled new, value-driven ideas for restoring commuter rail service.

Headed up by energy entrepreneur David Blittersdorf, AllEarth Rail is using 1950s-era Budd rail diesel cars to slash costs and drastically improve efficiency over traditional diesel multiple unit (DMU) systems. The Budd cars are basically self-propelled passenger cars, with a compact but powerful diesel engine mounted below the floor.

A renovated Budd car costs 85 percent less than a new DMU car, requires half the crew and can seat half again as many riders more comfortably. Operationally, Budd cars provide high flexibility at low overhead. Maintenance costs are minimal (engines can be completely changed out in an hour), acceleration is good (54 mph in 90 seconds) and no costly switch engines or crew are required for en route divisions.

That means a single train can cost-effectively serve multiple destinations. There’s also no need for costly turnarounds at terminals; Budd cars have engineer controls at both ends.

Blittersdorf predicts AllEarth Rail can provide regional rail service at one-third the cost of Amtrak. That kind of savings makes Arkansas commuter rail transit worth a second (and third) look.

Maybe our own passenger-train initiative is anchored around major state universities, where funding might be coupled with educational investment as a built-in added benefit to students.

Costs could be minimized by keeping schedules and stops simple at first, and adapt as demand emerges. Consumer behaviors change when alternatives appear, and the perceived barriers to railroad riding would easily evaporate once it became available and commonplace.

Who predicted Uber’s popularity? If we had weekday morning and evening commuter trains running to UA, ASU and UALR, and weekend and holiday schedules anchoring sports and other calendar events, it’s anybody’s guess what additional entrepreneurship possibilities would arise around the newfound market of riders.

The state and taxpayers already heavily subsidize planes and automobiles. Trains would provide some real safety solutions, some needed relief to congested roadways and some welcome reduction on the carbon energy grid.

All aboard!