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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Security Theater Cannot Sidetrack High-Speed Rail

Matt Pressberg |
January 9, 2013 | 2:19 a.m. PST


Amtrak's security protocols seem lost in the weeds. (jpmueller99/Flickr)
Amtrak's security protocols seem lost in the weeds. (jpmueller99/Flickr)
The holiday season is a time when many of us look forward to visiting out-of-town family and friends. We don’t, however, look forward to the journey, just the destination.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Middle-to-long-distance travel in America is generally unpleasant, but that’s because our airport security is a sad mess and our rail technology is half a century old at its best parts. I’ve kind of given up hope on the former, because for whatever reason, after 9/11 we’ve decided civil liberties are less important than feelings (in related news, Congress just reauthorized our warrantless wiretapping program), but with the stimulus finally kick-starting long-overdue high-speed rail in the United States, and particularly California, there is an opportunity to provide millions of Americans with a travel choice that is not a necessary evil, but an honest-to-goodness enjoyable experience.

High-speed rail is so popular in places like Western Europe because it is both civilized and seamlessly integrated with everyday transportation, leaving almost no wasted time or personal discomfort. You can hop off a Paris Metro car at 11:45 and walk into the Gare du Nord, over to the platform and right onto your assigned seat on a noon Thalys train to Germany. While it’s rolling, the conductor walks by, scans the e-ticket you printed from your computer the night before, and you can get right back to surfing the internet, walking around, taking in the scenery or enjoying some wine and cheese you picked up that morning. A little over 3 hours and 300 miles later, you disembark in Cologne at a convenient Hauptbanhof in the heart of the city, ready to head to your meeting, visit a friend or just explore. This journey cost only €35, booked online a few weeks in advance.

This is the promise, and now reality of true high-speed rail. New technologies like maglev will continue to push the envelope on speed even further, but the proposed travel times for California’s future system are blazing enough. Downtown L.A. to Downtown San Francisco in 2 hours and 38 minutes? San Fran to Fresno in 80 minutes? A certain dearly departed California legend, who really deserved to be around for this, would find it amazing. There is only one thing that can derail it.

Last month, I took Amtrak for the first time in a few years, from New York City to North Carolina. Not the shortest journey, but I like trains, hate most big-city airports, especially those in NYC, and figured that at least the train trip would be chill and hassle-free, I’d have an adult-size seat and I could open-carry dangerous contraband like full-size cosmetics and lighters.

I also wanted to travel this way for another reason. High-speed rail is coming to California. A lot of taxpayer money is about to be spent on it. Californians are ready to embrace it (even if some of them don’t realize it yet), but high-speed rail is only going to catch on in this country if we give it the freedom to fly.

Unfortunately, the security creep that has poisoned American air travel has made its way to our trains, and nothing has given me any reason to believe it won’t continue on to infect and deliver a purely manufactured and completely self-inflicted fatal blow to high-speed rail in California and elsewhere in the United States.

We can’t let this happen. High-speed rail is one of the best, most forward-looking, legitimate society-improving things we can spend money on, but not if we insist on ruining its ability to provide cutting-edge travel friendly to both person and planet based on nothing more than fear and nonsense. Bin Laden’s endgame wasn’t the Twin Towers. It was war-driven overspending and people getting their colostomy bags manhandled at airports.

My Christmas Day train originated at New York’s Penn Station, an entirely underground station with architecture seemingly inspired by an off-Strip sports book, complete with mismatched display boards. The only seating area with actual seats was a dedicated Amtrak room, designed to look and feel just like an airport gate, because that always puts people in a good mood. This glorified pen had an agent seated at the entry, checking to make sure only ticketed Amtrak passengers were allowed in.

This was a room at a train station next to a Dunkin’ Donuts that was across a public concourse from the entry to the train platforms, so it was really controlled-access for no reason. The only one I came up with was that Amtrak/the station wanted to make sure ticketed passengers had priority to sit in those chairs, but one would think it would be cheaper to just buy more chairs than to hire a full-time agent.

When it was time to board the train, instead of just walking to the platform and taking our seats (which in my experience are either assigned or on a first-come-first-served basis, depending on the specific train rules) everyone was forced to line up in front of the stairway leading to the train, where a gate agent checked tickets and IDs.

We then proceeded to the dungeon-like underground platform (not all underground platforms are dungeon-like, but Penn is), where another agent (who was way too cheerful and intelligent for the procedures she was assigned to carry out) acted as some type of maitre d’, gathering information about group counts and our final destinations, and assigning seats accordingly, sticking handwritten signs on the overhead shelves above us. This was the least efficient train-boarding protocol I have ever witnessed, and this includes the kiddie trains by the food court at the mall.

I understand Penn Station is directly underneath high-value Madison Square Garden. But there are similar fully integrated stations on each country’s rail network that serve long-haul high-speed trains (some that even cross international borders) directly underneath Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport (Europe’s second busiest and the world’s sixth) and alongside Frankfurt’s International Airport (number three in Europe and nine worldwide), both of which are also sensitive security zones. Despite this, and the fact that unlike America, Europe has actually experienced real terrorism on its railways, people boarding trains at the Paris or Frankfurt airports are given the luxury of civilized-world freedom of movement.

To Amtrak’s credit, the train did leave close to its scheduled departure time, and once it got rolling it was a smooth—if painfully slow, particularly for the times—ride. (Yes, the Acela is faster, but not competitive with true high-speed rail in countries with quality of life standards similar to ours. It has grade-crossings, for goodness' sake.)

However, much of the scenery along the track did not look emblematic of the richest country in the world, a fact noted by one of my travel partners, a native of Brazil and no stranger to rough neighborhoods. The stretch between Trenton and Philly is almost post-apocalyptic. This is more of an America problem than a transportation problem, but it stood out. I also think our gun violence problem has a lot more to do with urban neglect in North Philly than insufficiently armed teachers or semi-automatic hunting rifles, but that’s for another time.

As we approached Baltimore, I heard paw steps and chain-jingling and turned around to see a badged officer walking what I have determined to be a bomb-sniffing dog down the aisle of the train. (Let’s just say I have certain intelligence that leads me to strongly believe it was a bomb-sniffing and not a drug-sniffing animal.) I’m rarely surprised at new and unimproved manifestations of the nanny state, but this caught me off-guard. It’s something I’d expect to see in a former Soviet republic or a country with an active rebel movement, not Maryland. Bunny Colvin would not approve.

After an extended stop in D.C. to change to a diesel locomotive (because we still haven’t figured out a way to electrify the entire east coast rail corridor, which is not only inefficient for travelers but a giant middle finger to the environment), we proceeded through the Virginia countryside, resplendent in its ochre winter wardrobe. Somewhere between Alexandria and Richmond, I noticed a pickup truck parked on the road running alongside the track with two hunters wearing blaze orange caps walking away from it, one of whom was holding a semi-automatic shotgun over his shoulder.

Aside from the fact that no rich-country mainline train should be traveling slow enough for a not particularly alert passenger to be able to make these kinds of detailed observations, juxtaposing the freedom of these hunters with the lack thereof of passengers subject to not-illegal-but-certainly-invasive (dogs on domestic trains!) search and surveillance procedures for no justifiable reason.

That hunter could have easily pointed his 12 gauge shotgun at the train and killed someone. But he didn’t, and history shows and society proves that he was extremely unlikely to ever do so. The same applies to train passengers, but unlike those hunters, and unfortunately more like airline passengers, are presumed terrorists until proven otherwise.

I don’t want my train to get bombed. But I also don’t think every train has a potential bomber waiting to board it that needs to be filtered out by annoying and time-sucking gates and hurdles, especially for a method of travel whose main advantage is its minimal wasted time.

Airplanes are the fastest and only reasonable method of intercontinental travel, but they involve the body scanner Macarena, recycled air, tiny seats and way too many rules about electronics. On the flip side, you can roll out of bed an hour before your train departs, throw random stuff in a bag, hop public transit to the train station and travel from Brussels to Nice without even pausing the movie you’re streaming on your iPad or having to stop working on the financial model you’re cranking out for the client you’re meeting at dinner that night.

California is about to spend a lot of money putting together a high-speed rail system, to give Angelenos, San Diegans and Oaklanders the same privilege of rapid movement so many Parisians and Romans enjoy. People in Paris and Rome take the train because, after factoring in extensive airport time, it’s close enough to the speed of flying with 1/1 millionth of the hassle. It’s an easy trade-off for short journeys.

If America screws up and delivers high-speed rail with low-intelligence airport-style security, only rail dorks like me and people with a fear of flying will take the train. If you have to show up 90 minutes before departure and take off your shoes and belt and put your toiletries in a plastic bag (which is probably the silliest airport security rule—and maybe rule, period—of all time) to fly from the Southland to the Bay Area in one hour, or you have to do the same to take a train there in three, most people are just going to fly, and taxpayers are going to be paying for a white elephant that so didn’t have to turn out that way. If the American version of high-speed rail has to come with the American version of transportation security, we shouldn’t even bother.

High-speed rail has transformed travel in Europe, Japan (and soon China, once they build trains to last), has transformed travel for the best, providing fast, relatively affordable, environmentally friendly and convenient connections between cities that previously required a long drive or stressful flight. It holds the same promise for California, whose road and air corridors could use some congestion relief.

However, it’s going to fail (and we won’t get another crack at it for a long time) if we cut it off at the knees with onerous and odious airport-style security protocol, which occurs nowhere else in first-world domestic rail travel. This is not the American exceptionalism we want, but it sadly appears to be infiltrating previously free Amtrak. This paranoia is unbecoming and shortsighted, and must be fixed before it destroys high-speed rail in this country. Those who would sacrifice liberty for the feeling of security deserve neither—but they also don’t deserve to sabotage advanced-society transportation for the rest of us.

Read more of Neon Tommy's coverage of high-speed rail here.

Reach Editor-at-Large Matt Pressberg here.



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