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It may be time to listen seriously to the train nuts

August 17, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

Could it be that, all these years we should have been listening to the train nuts?

You know the ones - they have 16 miles of O gauge in the basement with a complete replica of the Canadian Rockies, they can tell the difference among steam locomotives by the sound of their whistles and, given the slightest opening, they can chew your ear off about the value of rail transport.

The mere fact of my writing this will guarantee about five phone calls from them Monday morning. Unless they can find my phone number by Sunday afternoon.

They are either hopeless romantics or hopeless realists, I've never been able to decide which. Maybe it's both. But safe to say, their stock has risen skyward this year, right along with the cost of gas.

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My love for trains is little boyish, and I've always wanted to believe they were right - that rail transit was due for a rebirth as an efficient, more comfortable and cleaner mode of getting around. But I have to admit, I never fully bought in.

With the possible exception of the espresso brewer in Italy, the automobile defines America like no other machine defines any other country in the world.

Forget guns, when I was 18 they could have my Fiat 124 sport when they pried it from my cold dead hands - or when it sprung a massive oil leak, which it, being a Fiat, did after about three months.

I didn't even think the price of gas would matter all that much, and in a sense it hasn't. Were we accustomed to living frugal lives, an extra $150 a month or so would not be reason to park the Escalade.

But we always seem to extend ourselves to the brink on everything from homes to electronics to vehicles themselves, leaving little wiggle room in the monthly budget.

So if the train guys win, they can thank the price of gas, but also our lack of self-restraint.

They also can thank the airlines, for making air travel such a miserable, uncivilized experience that many people are now choosing "staycations" - just staying close to home during their vacation time rather than jetting off to some exotic locale.

So for rail, the door is certainly ajar.

The (Baltimore) Sun reported this week that driving on rural roads in Maryland is down nearly 6 percent in June and that ridership on light rail and MARC commuter trains was correspondingly higher.

In Washington County, the average travel time to work is 25 minutes, a number that's inflated by folks heading "down the road" to urban jobs. People who moved here for bigger homes in their price range or the rural lifestyle are likely to be feeling the pinch.

Over the years, there's been talk of extending rail service to Hagerstown (most feasibly, perhaps, by way of Martinsburg, W.Va., which is already served) but of course it's never gotten very far. Considering we have to scrape and claw just to get a new highway intersection, it's doubtful that more serious talk is on the horizon.

But if we're not ready for a big step forward, perhaps we should be ready for a small step - being open to the possibility and starting to ask questions.

How many Washington County commuters would take advantage of rail service? How many cars would it get off the Interstates? What would the commuting times be? How much disposable income might our local residents save, money that would go into the local economy instead of into gas tanks?

In short, could it be a success?

I don't think anyone, from taxpayers to train buffs, would want to see a commuter line if it's only going to serve a handful of people. Cost-effectiveness comes into play.

But we won't know whether we're approaching that cost-effectiveness unless we ask. All across the country, smart, progressive cities are stirring to action where rail is, or could potentially be, involved.

Some could argue with a degree of merit that the high cost of gas is exactly the brake we need on development - that we should not necessarily be interested in making it easier for people to live here and work there. Certainly this is a consideration.

But another consideration is the poor wage scale of the county, which is well below state and national averages. Washington County kids who want to continue to live in Washington County may have no other choice but to commute if they wish for a decent salary.

No one at the moment knows what science and technology will bring. Some cheap, alternative fuel may be in the cards that will put the good ole days of rail travel back into the history books.

But rail, both local and national, may be a solution, even if it is not the solution. It's unlikely that any one approach is going to solve our energy problems, so many partial solutions may end up being the answer.

I confess, I'm rooting for the trains. They're not as fast as a jet or as convenient as a car. But they drop you off at your destination in far better condition than either. More and more, that is not a small consideration.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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