Thursday, December 15, 2011

Trains: 'Here's Mud In Your Eye'

The actual origins and meaning of the title quotation are debatable, but these three options seem to be favored; a reference to Jesus' healing of the blind man in the Bible; a common toast in a pub, perhaps reminding of the awful trench warfare in WW I; a reference to winning - as in a horse race on a muddy track ['mudders' were more surefooted in wet conditions].

Regardless of actual intent, nowadays the phrase is usually used lightly, to celebrate something, whether a win, enlightenment or simple pleasure.

Since we live in a relatively wet region we may be more used to mud than others.
And so it is with trains.
All kinds of trains; freight, passenger, heavy, light, fast & slow.

Trains and mud are the subjects of Floyd Mckay's Crosscut article that appeared today.
In it he addresses the frequent mudslides that occur every year along the coastline BNSF Railroad corridor between Seattle & Vancouver, BC; something that is a concern even during normal times of routine traffic.

The implications of greatly increased frequency, weight and length of 1.5 mile long unit trains hauling coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to the proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point are pretty clear if recent history is to be trusted.

Also, guess what rail service would be impacted the most?
If you guessed AMTRAK and passenger service in general, you'd be correct.

I can remember being fascinated with trains as a youth, and one Christmas received a toy Lionel electric train complete with cars, track, signals and switches.
How I loved playing with that train, but that antique has long since disappeared - much to my chagrin.

Sixty years ago trains seemed more of a reality than they do today, probably because we've gotten used to them and take them for granted.
But, maybe also because things moved slower then and we were more connected to where stuff came from how that stuff was somehow considered essential, not only to us, but the economy as a whole.

Now, things move much more frenetically, are pre-processed, packaged and made somewhere else - frequently not even in our country, thanks to the global trade that is today's reality.

I also remember going to the train station to actually travel somewhere on a train!
Or meet someone who came to visit, or pick up parcel post shipments for distribution at the Post Office, or just watch the trains come and go.
Yes, that was considered fun, then.
Now, its not so much, although the idea of taking a scenic, leisurely, long distance trip by train still carries great appeal.
That's probably the hitch; specifically the words leisurely and long.

I used to take trains into New York City to work most days during a 3-year period.
Was that fun? No, but is was convenient and quick, especially as compared to driving a car.
Once in NYC, I had a choice between mass transit systems that were equally convenient and quick; subway, bus, shuttles, etc.
Nothing about leisurely and long there, except in relative terms.

On my trips to Europe, I found trains and mass transit systems to very convenient and efficient means of transportation. Europeans rely on these, not only to get around, but to help eliminate sprawl by helping to define reliable boundaries between urban areas and farmlands.
Also, the balance between freight and passengers seems more equitable. But, maybe that's because those societies have long since learned lessons we are still struggling with?

Back to AMTRAK for a moment.
That it is heavily subsidized is known and necessary if we are to preserve any semblance of balance between freight and human passengers.
That will likely become even more important as gas prices rise along with the costs of owning and operating private vehicles.
And, already the costs of air travel are approaching prohibitive levels for many people.
Think about it.
Then, think about how you are going to get around when things really get tough.
Think maybe that might happen in your lifetime?

Someday soon, we'll need to use trains and other shared transportation methods to physically get to where we want -and need- to be.
At that time, we'll appreciate maintaining at least what we have now.
The problem is, by the time that kind of problem happens, it's too late to mitigate it.
After all, infrastructure projects do require large amounts of public funding, plus years to construct.

But aside from those rather dire prospects, what about the continued role of AMTRAK to bring visitors to and from our area?
This region's natural beauty makes it a treasure that people want to see, experience and live in. All of those bring benefits to our local economy that are lasting unless we allow our natural assets and rail links to be degraded.

From the Crosscut article, WSDOT plans to expand our regional AMTRAK service to three round trips per day from the current two - which are already impacted by mudslides and BNSF's policies, which favor freight.
And, remember future plans by WSDOT foresee the need for further expansion of AMTRAK to 4 round-trips per day.

Now, we have more reason for concern about AMTRAK; greatly increased freight traffic to ship coal to China.
Does that really make sense?

The Fifteen Century Spanish traded silver from the Americas to China for porcelain and silk.
Precious metal [to be used for currency by the Ming Dynasty] for value-added goods to be used by wealthy Europeans.
Six hundred years later, wealthy Americans want more wealth by shipping an non-precious natural resource fossil mineral [coal] to China to enable that country to ship cheap, value-added goods here.
What has changed?
Wealthy people are still trading with wealthy people, but by-passing working people here in the US, and in favor of those in China.

If that uneven exchange weren't bad enough, the proposed constant stream of heavy coal trains risks not only decent AMTRAK service, but any reliable passenger service at all, all potentially due to the unhealthy mix of mud and greed.
So, whose eye gets this mud?
Why yours and mine will, if the huge coal export scheme somehow happens.
And, remember, at least in racing parlance, the winner kicks mud in the loser's eye.

But, maybe the other definitions will apply instead.
Maybe there will be a legitimate cause for celebration, and possibly even healing.
Those would be infinitely better outcomes, although the issue remains in serious doubt and uncertainty.

Some of that uncertainty might be reduced if our community makes its preference strongly known, in timely and specific terms so that the Environmental Impact Study [EIS] now planned will include these preferences in its scope.
The scope itself must reflect the concept of full cost accounting, where Triple Bottom Line [TPL] principles are inherent.
Just as a three-legged stool balances better if the legs are of equal length, this analysis must include economics, ecology and social equity.

That brings me to a final point; how we communicate this community's concerns and desired outcomes to those who will eventually make this decision.

The Chinese warrior Sun Tsu would recommend achieving victory without war, by communicating our strengths and goals so clearly that the enemy loses his will to fight.
We can help do this by asking -or demanding- our local officials and elected leaders actually
act on our behalf, early and often, regardless of what power or influence they may believe
they have in this matter.

To this end, this week's Gristle in the Cascadia Weekly has a few suggestions that likely reflect the community's will.

Earlier this year, the City Council unanimously passed a Resolution that expressed its views about the Coal Terminal EIS. I had forgotten about that, as have many others, I'm sure.
Somehow, since then, little more has been officially expressed despite the fact that significant new information has been regularly discovered and dispensed.

Some apparently feel that the elections prevented a more candid discussion due to a concern that the issue might be unduly politicized.
Huh? Guess what? It was anyway!

That's history now; too late to fret over lost opportunities to express the City's concerns.

But, its not too late -or early- to do something more now!

Now is the time to round up the new gang at City Hall and get them to reaffirm the City's position on the proposed Coal Terminal again, for the record.
You can't really argue with regular persistence, can you?

So, if the prior Resolution - passed 6 months ago - was unanimous then, it should be again with the new Council.
And, if the current -soon to be former- Mayor still argues against the GPTerminal, likely he still will.
Same goes for the the new Mayor-elect, who rightfully chose not to make this issue the main one during the elections.

Think another unanimous and maybe stronger Resolution might reaffirm the City's will in this matter?
Like chicken soup, it won't hurt and might help.
After all, we're building a record on the City's position, whether we choose to speak out strongly again - or remain comfortably silent.
So, which will it be folks?

Just do the right thing, listen to citizens and then speak up again, and again, and again as necessary.
Until the 'decision makers' hear us loud and clear!

For a community like Bellingham, a request like this ought not to even be necessary, but I'm making it anyway.
And, I'm very sure many others feel the same.

Let's welcome the New Year properly with a display of such bright and unmistakable community intensity that people elsewhere can't help but notice!

"Git er done!"