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July 01, 2007

A Short Line on Rail Lines

by Susan Ann Silverstein

From the first railroad (Baltimore and Ohio, 1830), first subway (New York, 1904), and first monorail (Seattle, 1962) to the first public takeover of a commuter railroad (Long Island Rail Road Co., 1966), first federally subsidized intercity passenger railroad (AMTRAK, 1970), and the passage of requirements for accessibility for people with disabilities (the Rehabilitation Act of 1974 and the Americans with Disability Act of 1990), transportation by rail has been an important feature of the public landscape.

Trains move both passengers and freight and continue to be a critical element of political controversies ranging from regional growth (Amy Gardner, As Dulles Rail Staggers, Players Share in Blame, Wash. Post, Aug. 29, 2007, at A01) to free trade (Robert Francis, From Canada to U.S. and Mexico, NASCO Aims to Build Bridges, Fort Worth Business Press, June 11, 2007, A railroad was a party in two recent employment law cases decided by the Supreme Court, Norfolk v. Sorrell, 127 Sup. Ct. 799 (2007), and Burlington v. White, 126 Sup. Ct. 2405 (2006). Indeed, many significant past Supreme Court civil rights cases were decided in the context of the railroad industry, for example, Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), where a railroad porter evicted Plessy from an all-white rail car. The corollary is also true, and future railroad policy must take into account past historical realities—train tracks that were placed to create commercial arteries for corporate advantage and to cut off populations deemed undesirable, property claimed from Native American reservations, and poor and minority communities being subjected to greater environmental risk—and the consequences that must still be remedied. See Rachel D. Godsil, Viewing the Cathedral from Behind the Color Line: Property Rules, Liability Rules, and Environmental Racism, 53 Emory L.J. 1807 (2004).

Rail is a critical mode of public transit. Traditional railways are referred to as heavy rail and are operated under a variety of power modes, including diesel. Light rail is the modern successor to the trolley systems of old and is primarily powered by electricity, often by overhead lines. It can run on crowded urban streets and make frequent stops or use separate tracks above, below, or at ground level and is thus greatly adaptable to local needs. The American Public Transit Association reports that in fiscal year 2005, in commuter rail fares alone, $1.73 billion was collected on 423 million trips covering 9.5 billion miles, or the equivalent of traveling to the Sun one hundred times. American Public Transportation Association, Public Transportation Fact Book 63 (58th ed. 2007). In the decade from 1995 through 2005, 27 percent of passenger trips on public transportation were on heavy rail, 4 percent on light rail, and 4 percent on commuter rail, in contrast to the vast majority of trips—60 percent—that are made on buses. Yet, as a percentage of public transit miles traveled, the proportion of rail usage was 53 percent, compared to bus usage of 44 percent.

Almost universally, when a new or expanded urban rail system is proposed, local political debate becomes highly polarized. Data support several key findings: building rail systems reduces the rate of growth of congestion while not necessarily reducing current congestion; for trains to attract auto drivers to the rail system, the commute time must be competitive with the time spent traveling by car; and rail can improve overall mobility of the transportation network, can reduce some commutes, and can alleviate some travel-related stress, commuting time, and costs, but it is not a panacea for all regional transportation problems.

Full wheelchair accessibility has not yet been achieved in urban transit and passenger train services. As of 2006, according to the American Public Transit Association, 78 percent of commuter rail is accessible to people in wheelchairs through some combination of on-vehicle lifts and ramps or floor-level platform warding and platform lifts. For light rail, the figures are 85 percent, with 34 percent of accessibility being provided through the light rail cars and 51 percent being provided at the station itself. Of course, these are best case scenario figures based on equipment being fully operational as designed and perfectly maintained. They may not reflect the actual experience of accessibility that people with disabilities encounter in their day-to-day use of public rail transit.

As important as it is to move people by train, freight tonnage and ton miles are growing more quickly than passenger mileage in many highway corridors. Highways are becoming more congested and railroads also are operating beyond their own traffic capacity. Ernie Wittwer, Building a National Freight Policy, Proceedings of the 2007 Mid-Continent Transportation Research Symposium ( Ames, Iowa 2007). By their nature, trains move freight in large, concentrated loads. Although rail results in only 2 percent of the total hazardous substances releases that occur during shipment, according to the Centers for Disease Control, large-scale releases can occur with a significant affect on the environment, local communities, and economy. Perhaps in one of the most serious of such events, the death of eight people resulted from a chlorine spill after a manual track switch was left in the wrong position and a train collided with cars on a siding in South Carolina in 2006. In 2007, a CSX freight train derailed twenty-nine of seventy-nine cars in Oneida, New York. Nine tank cars carrying explosive materials, including liquid propane, burst into flames and severed the busy Buffalo to Albany line for a week. It took hazmat crews several days to put out the fire before crews were even allowed on the scene to begin track repairs. During the outage, train service west of Albany was reduced and passengers needed to transfer to buses for portions of the trip. The attempt by Washington, D.C., to ban the shipment of hazardous materials through its jurisdiction was struck down. CSX v. Williams, No. 05-5131 (D.C. Cir. May 3, 2005). As the South Carolina tragedy reminds us, many chemicals we rely on—from household products to ingredients in our medications—are hazardous in the form in which they are shipped. We must then find a way both to move those substances we find necessary for modern life and to protect from harm our urban neighborhoods and nonurban environments.

Susan Ann Silverstein

Susan Ann Silverstein has been a poverty and civil rights lawyer for twenty-five years. She is currently a senior attorney with AARP Foundation Litigation working on issues of livable communities and shares her home with a rail fan.