Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Blind Spot

Clusterfuck Nation

by Jim Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) (April 20 2008)

My new novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available at all booksellers.

I happened to be flying into Minneapolis the very day that Northwest Airlines announced its merger with Delta - Delta to be the more senior (more equal) partner - in effect, to absorb Northwest and run its operations. Many observers are not optimistic that the merger will rescue these companies in any case, since both airlines are financial basket-cases, but it's a sort of last-ditch effort to save them both.

It was less than great news up around Minneapolis, Northwest's corporate headquarters. A lot of people I talked to were anxious that Delta would cut service to a lot of little cities in the upper Great Lakes and northern prairie region, places like Duluth, Grand Forks, Green Bay, Traverse City and many other towns. Instead of one or two flights a day, they may end up with one or two a week, or none at all, they feared.

The Northwest pilots were none too pleased, either, because Delta was making noises about their own pilots seniority counting for more than Northwest's pilot's seniority in terms of preferred assignments and scheduling. In fact, the Northwest pilots were so pissed off they threatened to scuttle the merger.

That part of the country is a big region of wide open spaces Things are very far apart. You wouldn't want to drive a car from Des Moines to Rapid City, even if gasoline was a good bit less than the $3.50 a gallon it is now. Driving around the prairie is especially tedious - and dangerous because of the tedium. The landscape is boring. The roads are dead straight and mostly dead flat.

It happened, also, that I got a little guided tour of Minneapolis from the author-shlepping service that my publisher engaged. We rode past the old Minneapolis central train station. He said no trains stop there anymore (there's a dinky afterthought of a station next door in St. Paul). Anyway, the only train that comes through the Twin Cities is the pokey once-a-day Amtrak to Seattle.

In other words, this region of the country has next-to-zero railroad service. Can we pause a moment here to ask: exactly how far does America have its head up its ass? Do you get the picture? Can you connect the dots? The airline industry is dying and absolutely no thought is being given to how people will get around this big country - except to make the stupid assumption that we can just drive our cars instead. Even during the several days I was around Minneapolis, no news media or politician raised the subject of reviving passenger railroad service.

In point of fact, these are exactly the kind of trips that would be better served by rail, anyway - the towns that are less than five hundred miles apart. The travel time between trains and planes would be comparable, considering the two hours or so that you have to add to every airplane trip because of all the security crap, not to mention the delays. As a matter of fact, USA Today ran a front page story two days after the Delta / Northwest announcement saying "Air Trips Slowest [now than] in Past Twenty Years". Subhead: "Trend likely to persist as congestion worsens".

One big reason for the airport congestion, of course, is that the runways are cluttered up with planes making trips of only a few hundred miles. This has been a problem for quite a while. Periodically, it gets so bad that the media gets all excited and sometimes (last summer, for instance) the President makes a statement deploring it. Since the current president is a knucklehead, it apparently hasn't occurred to him to get behind a revival of the passenger rail system. But Mr Bush is apparently not the only elected knucklehead in this country, because absolutely nobody is talking about this.

Now get this: we are sleepwalking into a transportation crisis. As I already said, the airline industry is dying. The price of petroleum-based aviation fuel is killing it. And forget the fantasies about running it on bio-diesel or used french-fry oil. Driving cars will not be an adequate substitute, either. It's imperative that this country gets serious about restoring the passenger rail system. We can't not talk about it for another year. We must demand that the candidates for president speak to this issue. If you who are reading this are active reporters or editors in the news media, you've got to raise your voices behind this issue.

Bill Totten


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