The Business and Politics of Passenger Rail; 2013-09-06
A Companion Digest of Events, Opinions, and Forecasts to
This Week at Amtrak
By J. Bruce Richardson
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
America’s foremost passenger rail policy institute
Jacksonville, Florida • United States of America
Telephone 904-636-7739, Electronic Mail email@example.com • http://www.unitedrail.org
Volume 3, Number 2
Founded over 35 years ago in 1976 by the late Austin Coates, URPA is a nationally known policy institute which focuses on solutions and plans for passenger rail systems in North America. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, URPA has professional associates in Minnesota, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Virginia, Texas, New York, and other locations. For more detailed information, along with a variety of position papers and other documents and a compendium of This Week at Amtrak, visit the URPA web site at http://www.unitedrail.org.
URPA is not a membership organization.
Oh, the agony of it all. Here we are on the very near cusp of a national revolution in passenger rail in America, and the working press can’t even get the terms correct. Of course, these days, those august members of the Fourth Estate act more as if they come from the streets instead of graduates of esteemed bastions of alleged higher education.
It’s hard to tell who sins the most – or, should know better – paid members of the press or those who labor unpaid in the blogosphere, often without moral benefit of a qualified editor.
But, then again, so many editors have been pared from publication and broadcast payrolls reporters these days often find themselves on their own, and even a handy copy of the Associated Press Stylebook, the bible of journalism, can’t save them.
It’s not uncommon for news stories involving any type of trains, from passenger to freight to commuter, to misrepresent critical players in the safe operation of trains. Locomotive engineers are often errantly referred to as conductors, and, on many occasions, as drivers. In these modern times, one can almost live with “drivers,” but, anyone with even the barest knowledge of railroads knows there is a huge difference between conductors and locomotive engineers.
Then, of course, there are those truly ignoble reporters and writers who refer to locomotives as “cars” of the train. One has to wonder if these same less-than-intrepid souls would simply refer to the wings on aircraft as “those long, pointy things which stick out from the sides of planes.”
There is a credo among news reporters and writers about creating clever phrases in stories and even more clever headlines. Apparently, for reporters and writers writing about any type of trains, there is an un-scratchable itch to include terms such as “choo-choo,” “puffing,” and “chugging along.” One would think they were writing about Thomas The Tank Engine instead of a real, adult topic, such as railroads. It is also notable there hasn’t been a main line train in North America which “chugs,” or “puffs” in over 60 years, or, for those who are counting, a decade longer than half a century. Illustrators and artists don’t help this cause by constantly portraying railroad locomotives as long-departed steam engines instead of any type of modern diesel electric locomotives.
In some quarters, there is a myth railroads and trains aren’t “real” unless they are portrayed as the steam and smoke-belching locomotives of the 19th and early 20th century. While these great beasts were modern mechanical marvels of their day, they were also prone to a few ongoing problems such as boilers exploding and killing, maiming and scalding everyone within a medium-sized radius, were major polluters and generators of coal soot, and were hugely inefficient compared to even the most antiquated diesel electric locomotives of the pre-World War II era. But, with the majority of the North American population having never seen a working steam locomotive, somehow, they remain a symbol of railroads in a modern era. Really, how romantic could those beasts be, with all of their costs and liabilities?
The creation of Amtrak seems to be a never-ending vexation for some writers and editors, who are prone to spell the company name as “Amtrack” in stories and headlines. The incredible part of this is the easy access to multiple sources for professional writers to check the proper names of companies, not to mention the everyday convenience of “Googling” a word or phrase, or, before the Internet, the most important source of reference available in print for checking names of all types – the Yellow Pages.
Next, we move on to the Europeanization of terms referring to freight trains. Perhaps many of us missed the memo, but, when did we start referring to freight trains as cargo trains? And, better yet, why? Will this mean the freight railroads will now be universally referred to as cargo railroads? We also see the occasional reference to a freight train as a goods train. (Presumably, if there as “goods” trains, are there also “bads” trains?)
Does it make the ignorant-sounding writers and editors feel more sophisticated or cosmopolitan to apply some European terms to American and Canadian railroading? And, as the consumers of the unappealing efforts of these writers and editors, are we supposed to hold them in higher esteem because they deem to drag us poor, ignorant, unworldly North Americans into international use of what they think are proper railroad terms? Do these people sleep better at night knowing they have done their bit to educate backwoods non-residents of The Continent across the pond?
One well-seasoned venerable Washington Wag for years has taken note the government of the United States of America has a Department of Transportation, versus what the rest of the civilized world refers to as the Transport Department or Department of Transport. He notes “transportation” is more commonly used in reference to convicted scoundrels being sent from Mother Country England to Australia as punishment in earlier times instead of how we Americans commonly refer to use of the word. An intellectual argument can be made when the DOT was established by Congress on October 15, 1966, the denizens of the federal house and senate perhaps wished to sound “modern” and up-to-date, thus stretching “transport” to “transportation.” (When one looks at the official logo of the US DOT, one has to wonder, “why?” Perhaps the mysterious logo helps explain Washington thinking of the era.)
And finally, there is the on-going media sympathy to the heavy burden residents have who have bought homes near main line railroad tracks and yards. All Aboard Florida, the company which is developing the highly-anticipated new, private passenger service between Miami and Orlando will use the current Florida East Coast Railway infrastructure north from Miami to Cocoa, where it will swing inland to Orlando.
Florida corporate and railroad pioneer Henry Flagler pretty much built what is modern-day Florida’s east coast cities and towns. All are there because of the construction and arrival of his FEC through the swamplands of the Florida peninsula. The FEC arrived in – and created – West Palm Beach in 1894, and then pushed south to Biscayne Bay and created the modern-day city of Miami in 1896. Between those two urban giants are cities such as Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, Deerfield Beach, Hollywood, and a few more. It’s all shoulder-to-shoulder living, with lots of high-rise condominiums and well as single-family homes.
For almost 120 years, the FEC tracks in Palm Beach County – home of West Palm Beach – have stayed in their original alignment. In accompanying Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, the tracks have stayed in the same place, too, for almost 120 years.
The tracks were there first; the tracks – along with air conditioning – are responsible for everyone and everything else being there. Yet, the news media in South Florida, ever on the lookout for a good sob story, are running miles of stories about the sad fate of homeowners who live right next to or very close to the FEC tracks, and how their lives are going to be mightily disrupted by the high frequency of All Aboard Florida passenger trains whizzing along the FEC tracks throughout the day. As many of the stories are written, these people who chose to buy homes and property next to a long-existing, active railroad main line, are going to suffer greatly by the horrible prospect of not only having to watch multiple trains go by each day, but the associated noise of train horns being sounded at grade crossings, and the incessant clanging of warning bells at grade crossing gates going down, will possibly cause great harm to their delicate personages.
Here’s the reality: the railroad was there first. It’s obvious when there is a set of railroad tracks which have the tops of the rails polished to a high luster there is lots of train traffic on those tracks. Yet, these people are demanding the railroad go away because it intrudes on their peace and tranquility in their homes? First, why did some ignorant/greedy developer build residential units right next to an active railroad, and second, why were people ignorant enough to buy these ill-fated residential units? Is it too much for the news media to perhaps point out the railroad was there first, and everyone else came after the railroad had arrived and been constructed on virgin land?
Alas and alack, are we doomed to suffer the ignorance and constant malapropos of the news media? Will anyone care enough to do even the slightest research to make sure their composition of the day is correct? Probably not, but we can hope. For a number of years, URPA has helpfully placed a guide to proper railroad terms on our website for the news media to digest and use. It’s available for anyone, and can be found here: www.unitedrail.org.
For the impossibly and constantly ignorant, here is a brief guide: people running the locomotive are locomotive engineers. The people who are legally in charge of the train and responsible for everything other than the operation of the locomotive are conductors. Trains which haul passengers are passenger trains (we won’t get into the differences between heavy rail and light rail at this point), and trains which haul everything but passengers are all called freight trains. Folks, it’s really not that difficult, and these terms have only been around for over 150 years. Do us all a favor and learn the lingo before you unintentionally slaughter the Queen’s English.