Sunday, December 27, 2009

To Ride the Friendly Rails

The next time I visit the United States, I think I'll be taking the train.

After the recent attempted terrorist attack on a Northwest Airlines aircraft descending into Detroit, foiled primarily due to the incompetence of the erstwhile terrorist in question, the United States' Transportation Security Administration seems to have wasted no time in rolling out New Security Measures for all aircraft entering the US - I say "seems to" because as I write this, I can't actually find any details about it on the TSA's own website.

The New York Times report suggests that one of the new measures is that passengers will have to remain seated during the last hour of the flight, during which time they will also be prohibited from accessing their carry-on luggage - pretty much entirely because our would-be bomber accessed his carry-on luggage to assemble his pyrotechnic during the last hour of the flight. Whether or not this will prove to be a knee-jerk response, like the brief prohibition of all carry-on luggage in the immediate aftermath of the planned 2006 transatlantic aircraft bombings, or if it will join the removal and X-raying of shoes in the pantheon of American air travel security, remains to be seen.

Whenever one of these incidents takes place, though, I'm reminded of one truth - that This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things. Airport security today is a silent war between screeners and terrorists, and security is a reactionary force. The mechanism is set up to prevent things that worked once from happening twice - for the terrorists, things only need to work once, and I don't think they're going to stop probing for the cracks in security any time soon.

If this goes on, I don't think the air travel industry as it currently exists will be tenable. Rising fuel prices have already wounded the airlines, and if security measures become steadily more onerous, there's going to come a time where people are no longer willing to put up with it all. Fortunately, the plane is not the only way to travel.

There's a joke that's made the rounds before and which, I think, has some truth to it - "How do you become a millionaire? Be a billionaire and start an airline." As I understand it, the modern dominance of air travel, particularly within North America, owes a lot to governmental subsidies that allowed the early airlines to undercut existing rail networks. While governments have a deserved reputation for making stupid decisions, even the most knotheaded won't throw good money after bad forever. If the mid-20th century was the Jet Age, I have a feeling that the early 21st century may turn out to be the Second Age of Rail.

Aircraft are fragile things - 36,000 feet above the ground with temperatures outside often Antarctic, small noises echo loudly - whereas trains, by their very nature, are less vulnerable to the midair sort of terrorism. Safety, not death, is on the other side of the window. One bomb could destroy an aircraft, but one bomb would not reduce an entire train to wreckage.

Today, air travel has the advantage of speed. In the years to come, though, it won't have a monopoly. The United States is currently looking into high-speed rail in a big way, and even if trains never are as fast as aircraft, that doesn't mean they're unsuitable for long-distance travel. After all, our ancestors managed it - and we have a wireless communications infrastructure that they didn't. Perhaps in the future, an ordinary trip from Toronto to Los Angeles won't leave from Pearson International Airport but from Union Station, and travellers will have their own allowances to work remotely and conduct their business in transit. For plenty of people, it'd probably be preferable to taking extra time off from work just to get there and back.

I recognize that as a Canadian citizen I do not have a right to visit the United States, merely the privilege. All I want is to be able to exercise that privilege in the least onerous manner possible.

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