by Winn Mott
he invention of the wheel was followed, some thousands of years later, by the discovery that a wheel on a rail could move more tonnage with less energy than a wheel on a road. One locomotive can pull a train with the freight equivalent of 100 to 150 trucks. One Coaster train can result in 400 or 500 fewer cars on the freeway. Many industrial nations take advantage of this efficiency with advanced rail systems, with travel available at speeds up to 180 miles per hour.
Aside from this efficiency and convenience, the impact on the environment is much friendlier. The implications for the relative amount of pollution and congestion, as well as the consumption of resources such as oil, are clear. Only our affluence and the historical abundance of fuel has allowed us the luxury of the automobile.
Strong and well-financed special-interest groups, such as the highway lobby, continue to perpetuate the waste and damage caused by our dependence on motor vehicles. Organizations which are part of the solution, such as Amtrak, live in constant danger of extinction by Congressional fiat and White House neglect.
However, it is also a personal matter of choice for each of us. If you live in a community where you have the option of using the Coaster, the trolley or Amtrak, why not give it a try? It requires a change of style, and maybe even getting some exercise by walking a few blocks (think of it as an alternative to hopping in the car to go exercise at the health club). It need not be inconvenient, and you would probably find it much more relaxing than fighting traffic. It isn't always possible to always use the rail choice but it is possible for many occasions.
Sometimes the best guide to the future lies already discovered in the past. As we search for ways to stop the damage to our environment caused by our lifestyle, some of the answers are already known to us. The problems are not in the technology, but in our political process, financial interests and habits.
You can help by supporting the ongoing political battle to provide a better rail alternative than we now have (or, in the difficult years, to preserve the minimal system we now have). When the congressional and state legislative battles rage, make your voice heard. Support the battle for rail as a fight for a kinder treatment of the planet - because it is.