Trains can ease our oil addiction

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

From a column by Dave Zweifel in The Capital Times:

Are we in denial?

While the Gulf of Mexico is being despoiled by millions of gallons of oil, threatening fish, birds and the livelihood of thousands of U.S. citizens for decades to come, a significant percentage of Americans can’t bring themselves to admit this catastrophe is directly related to our insatiable need for oil to feed our addiction to the automobile.

That addiction and our tepid efforts to find alternatives to carbon-fueled energy have led us to take incredible chances with the environment. One misstep, as we now know, can cause misery for tens of thousands of people and devastation to our one and only planet.

Despite the obviously dreadful consequences, we continue to subsidize the oil industry, which has for decades held sway over our politicians. Along with that, we provide more and more incentives for Americans to keep driving their gasoline-powered cars on ever wider and longer concrete highways.

It’s as if we can’t understand that someday the world will run out of oil, even as we go drilling into deeper and deeper seas and resort to opening up some of our most fragile natural preserves to keep the pumps running. “Drill, baby, drill” is still the mantra among all too many who at the same time oppose spending money to promote the development of alternative fuel sources.

Here in Wisconsin, for example, the state Legislature this session couldn’t bring itself to pass bills to establish a state energy policy that, among other incentives, would have provided aid to companies working on renewable energy projects.

Closer to home, a vocal group is hell-bent on scuttling the expansion of rail transportation to Madison, insisting trains are relics of the past — ‘so 19th century,’ as one of its leaders puts it — and that, in the 21st century, Americans want to use their cars and will continue to do so. So they bellow to anyone who will listen: Let’s stop the train.

Lost in their rhetoric is the simple fact that train travel saves thousands of gallons of gasoline. To move a passenger a mile, it’s estimated that a train takes 21 percent less fuel than a car and 17 percent less fuel than a plane.