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Issue Date:  October 26, 2007

A return to sensible transportation

We now import 60 percent of our oil from the Middle East and from nations such as Algeria, Venezuela and Nigeria. In two years we will have to import three-quarters of our fuel.

Many agree that the emphasis on ethanol is a distraction from the real problem of curbing our dependency, that conservation is the best way to insure energy security.

Contributing to our oil addiction is a shortsightedness about what might be called “sensible” transportation. For example, President Bush, responding to the chaos in America’s airports, recently declared that the government might step in to regulate routes and apportion flights. But it’s a quick fix that avoids the heart of the matter -- the need to revisit our transportation demands.

Probably the best way to significantly reduce airport congestion would be to revive passenger trains on routes between closer destinations. Per passenger, trains consume less fossil fuel than planes. Airlines can handle long-range trips, while letting trains deliver people from Chicago to Cincinnati, Atlanta to Washington, or Portland to Seattle.

When fuel is divided among passengers, travel by plane is as harmful to the environment and fuel security as if each passenger had driven their own car. The U.S. Department of Energy reported recently that trains, on a basis of energy consumed per passenger mile, were 18 percent more efficient than airlines. Unlike commercial aviation, which mostly uses refined jet fuel, trains use diesel fuel produced at a higher volume per barrel of oil. What’s more, emissions at high altitude have been proved to be more damaging to the ozone layer.

Rail is seldom mentioned as a partial solution to our energy dependence in transportation. Politicians avoid mentioning conservation measures when discussing oil dependence, shying away from President Jimmy Carter’s fate after he appeared on TV in the late 1970s wearing a sweater and urging us to turn down thermostats and drive less. Critics quickly dubbed his talk the “malaise” speech.

In order for rail to become feasible as a partial solution, mindsets and expectations about travel need to be revised and disciplined, our addiction to speed and hurry addressed. It would take, for example, six times as long to travel by rail than by plane from Atlanta to Washington, assuming the flight experienced no delays.

To sacrifice the need for speed to increased energy security might mean discovering other satisfactions: gazing contemplatively out the window at landscapes passing by at 50 mph instead of 500 or mindfully eating a leisurely meal while conversing with strangers. American culture revels in overwork and the resulting need to get somewhere fast for a funeral or wedding. The spirituality of disciplining that revelry might go a long way toward reducing stress while the earth breathes easier when one less plane flies.

The Natural Resources Defense Council recommends a range of conservation measures centered on sensible transportation to maintain energy security: Raise fuel economy standards to 40 mpg by 2012 and 55 mpg by 2020. This one measure produces huge savings since 54 percent of our passenger car fleet is made up of SUVs. Require fuel-efficient replacement tires by 2010. Extend tax incentives for hybrids and fuel cell vehicles. Reinvest in public transit and intercity railroads. Launch an “Apollo Project” for fuel cells and hydrogen fuel.

Reliance on ethanol and other biofuels is nowhere on the list while trains rank No. 3. All aboard!

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2007

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