Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Could Trains Have Saved Irma Evacuees?

In the tenth volume of A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell's satiric tapestry of mid-Twentieth Century British intellectual and artistic circles, several characters set up a left wing publishing house, yet are stymied by how to make a commercial success of a novel of socialist realism in translation which is near to the heart of one of the their patrons. That they are trying to make a commercial success of a piece of socialist realism is, of course, one of the understated sources of humor, as is the unwieldy title: The Pistons of our Locomotives Sing the Songs of Our Workers (Eventually this is shortened to the more marketable title Engine Melodies.)

There's something about trains which seems to appeal to ideological and technological Utopians across ideological boundaries. Affection for trains is a staple of progressive thinking these days, and yet Ayn Rand also idolizes trains in her massive novel Atlas Shrugged.

Perhaps, then, it's no surprise that someone over at the World Socialist Web Site wrote a piece asking: Why aren’t trains evacuating people from the path of Hurricane Irma?

The author complains at people being forced to use cars and planes to leave Florida due to the "abysmal, anarchy-filled state of transportation in America."

Why haven’t passenger trains, which could carry a thousand people a time, been sent to Florida to help? Residents without money or the ability to travel by car or plane could be taken to designated points of shelter and food.

Prior to Hurricane Gustav in 2008, there was a small successful example of this, as some 2,000 residents of New Orleans were taken to Memphis, Tennessee on special trains. A worker who participated in the rail operation noted that “At least 50% of the passengers were elderly, many in wheelchairs, on walkers or canes and generally unable to move very well without some assistance.” On a return trip, many passengers brought more luggage, as they could buy essential supplies in Memphis that would have been out of stock or priced-gouged in New Orleans. With baggage cars and plenty of space, the train accommodated this for free—compared to an airline that would charge $50 per bag.

That operation was minimal compared to what could be done, and yet with Irma, nothing similar has been attempted, despite a far larger forced evacuation. If the state and federal government, FEMA, and corporations cared to, dozens of sets of passenger train equipment could have been sent south during the week and made several trips from South Florida to points farther North. This would require workers trained in advance to conduct the operation, and designated points of shelter established in places like Atlanta, Georgia; Columbia, South Carolina; Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina; and other cities.

As one example, the commuter rail system of Chicago, Metra, has a daily ridership of 295,000 riders. If equipment on that scale were provided to a region at risk of a hurricane, an enormous number of people could be taken to safe shelter. Instead, all that has happened is that Amtrak ran its regular trains out of Florida up until Friday, which, of course, were sold out.

There are some pretty basic reasons why this wouldn't work, and they have to do with how trains as a mode of transportation work. Trains are good at moving predictable numbers of people over predictable routes. That's why commuter train systems such as the one in Chicago cited above are a moderately efficient means of moving people. You know that every work day basically predictable numbers of people will want to move from specific residential areas to specific business areas, and you build your tracks and schedule your trains accordingly. For this kind of highly predictable movement through dense areas, trains can indeed be more efficient than cars. While the train itself may get very full, the tracks do not get overloaded and backed up the way that a freeway does at rush hour, so the schedule can be somewhat more predictable, and a full train uses less fuel per passenger to move people over a given distance than having all those people take separate cars.

However, trains are only good at moving people over expected routes. Imagine that there was a sudden need to evacuate most of Chicago's residents to cities nearby cities like Peoria and Indianapolis. The commuter rail system vaunted above would be of no use at all, because the tracks don't go there. Trains are far less flexible than cars. You could use the same car you used to drive in to downtown Chicago to evacuate to Indiana, but you could not use the same train you took to downtown Chicago to evacuate the metro area instead.

This is something I encountered a good deal in doing research for the novel, in that a great deal of military planning done prior to World War One centered around trains. With the mass use of trucks and automobiles still in its infancy, mobilization plans made by the European powers centered around moving soldiers on trains. Even in the relatively dense confines of Western Europe, the standard rail system would not have remotely sufficed for Germany to move over a million soldiers to the French and Belgian borders during the course of a few days. They had to build massive redundancy into their rail network leading to the West, with extra sidings to allow trains to pass each other and rail heads with a dozen or more sidings where trains could stop and disgorge the soldiers who had just spend a couple days in cattle cars. All of this rail infrastructure was built just in case Germany went to war with France, and it allowed for only approach to doing so. The German high command did not have the option of choosing to attack in a different place than they had planned years in advance, because the rail lines had been built to support the planned route of attack.

If this was a massive undertaking to support moving a large number of people along one planned route of military attack, imagine trying to build a network capable of performing natural disaster evacuations. The sort of slightly increased high speed rail network which train enthusiasts suggest to replace Americans' habit of driving or flying when they want to go somewhere a few hundred miles away would not do. Such a network would be build to carry the normal number of people who wanted to travel in a given direction for business or pleasure at normal times. To be able to accommodate a significant portion of the population suddenly needing to evacuate elsewhere, you would need massively redundant rail lines in order to accommodate the sudden burst of travel in one direction. You would need to have this excess rail capacity in many places going many directions: Do you need to evacuate New Orleans toward Houston or Houston towards Dallas? Do you evacuate Florida to Georgia and the Carolinas, or the opposite direction? Not to mention that you'd also need contingency plans to actually get the needed trains to wherever it was you suddenly needed to evacuate so many people from.

Messy as it looks, the highway system and the use of cars, trucks, and buses is actually a much more efficient means of responding to unexpected surges of transportation needs. Yes, results in traffic jams and gas shortages, but despite the apparent chaos it's actually a much more flexible means of moving people around, because the same vehicle and roads which are normally used and be instantly repurposed to evacuation.


Michael said...

Trains are good for predictable loads and predictable routes, but you can trade predictability and convenience for immensely increased capacity. Commuter trains would pile up if too many trains were added, but that is because they make many stops, each of which takes time. Express trains go faster not through speed but by making fewer stops. Evacuation trains, especially with food and bathrooms on board, could run for several hundred miles, one after another in a long queue, and make fairly good progress, especially if there are tracks in each direction (to get the empty trains to the affected areas).

Philipp said...

The question, I suppose, is whether more could be done with the trains already in place during particular disasters. As this article points out, most people weren't evacuating out of the state anyway, and it would hardly have been possible for them to do so, by any means.

Can the Florida rail network be used in more efficient ways--or, if there isn't enough of one--an ordinary commuter network be built that could be used to move people from the most vulnerable coastal areas to shelters or at least inland areas that will be less vulnerable to such large storms? That, rather than whether people can be moved from Miami to Jackson or Atlanta or wherever, is what we really have to answer. I suspect the answer is still, "not without a lot of trouble and expense," but I'd be surprised if emergency plans couldn't be made more efficient and effective.