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All gassed up on trains again

If you saw my name on this article and thought, “oh boy, I wonder if this article is about European trains?” then you would be half right. I want to take a quick break from your regularly scheduled programming concerning my erratic adventures around Europe to discuss something that most Americans are probably fuming about at the moment—gas prices. Again, you may be wondering, “Thomas, is this going to turn into another one of your rants about the glory that is effective public transit?” The short answer is yes, but as you will read, the long answer is a little more nuanced than simply that.

According to AAA, the national average for gas prices in the United States have reached an all time high of $4.17 per gallon (without proper adjustment for inflation, the highest cost of gas in U.S. history still stands from July of 2008 when properly adjusted to the current US dollar). People in California face gas prices upwards of six dollars and it is wild to think that merely two years ago in April of 2020 gas prices dropped to $1.94 per gallon on average in the U.S.

If you are upset at these gas prices as an American you certainly have some reason to be upset at the increase in cost. It is not an insignificant increase by any means and can burden some families when it comes to saving money for other essential needs. However, if you are blaming Russia’s war and invasion of Ukraine on the increase in prices then you are placing your anger in the wrong spot. The truth about American consumption of Russian oil products is that Russian crude oil and petroleum exports to the U.S. represent eight percent of all its imported oil and less than two percent of the U.S. supply. What the United States imports from Russia is almost insignificant when it comes to our overall oil consumption which is largely imported from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. So, what I don’t want all of you American motorists to do when you pull into a gas station is scoff and blame it on the war. What I do want you to do is scoff and blame it on American oil executives.

The increase in gas prices derives from the American oil industry trying to make a quick buck. Back in April of 2020, when gas prices were at their lowest point in years that I mentioned earlier, oil producers were in the red. Barrels of oil were costing corporations more to drill and export than they received in return from profit. In some rare cases there were stories of the barrels being worth more than the oil they were containing. The oil industry in the U.S. took a major hit as we all sheltered in place and let our cars mothball in our driveways.

Oil needed a comeback and as pandemic restrictions were being lifted the hope for industry workers was that people would all jump right back in their cars and the money would flow as it did before lockdown. However, people decided to work remotely and the industry did not bounce back as it had predicted. It was also continuing to suffer from initial pandemic losses that they could not completely compensate for until profits stabilized. The oil industry was on its back foot but not completely in the corner.

They were only put there when the Build Back Better bill was passed and the recent Post Office overhaul was signed into law by President Biden. The sustainability goals of these two bills to move American energy and transit to electric automobiles served as a death sentence to the oil industry who see their business falling into a final descent. So what better way to make a quick buck than to increase gas prices at the backdrop of a war where the major power involved happens to be Europe’s largest oil trading partner? So please, do not blame the war on your gas prices, blame it on the selfish executives using the war as the perfect veil to hide their own desires behind.

But of course, this wouldn’t be an article from Thomas Pickering unless it properly mentioned a solution that involved trains. Simply put, effective public transit which connected not just towns to cities but towns to towns would make gas and oil products less relied on to get to work by individual commuters. The issue with our system is that our public transit connects outlying cities and towns to the largest metropolitan area within one hour. For instance, in Massachusetts all of our commuter line trains run from Boston to other cities such as Worcester, Fitchburg and Lowell. Which is very effective for moving people in and out Boston or moving people along those lines, but the issue comes when trying to move between lines. If I, a Worcester resident, wants to make it to Fitchburg I need to take the train into Boston and then out from Boston on another line; from another station I might add as well! This journey could take over two and half hours for a drive which is only 25 minutes.

For people who commute to Worcester from Fitchburg for work or school it just makes sense to rely on a car. But if we were able to invest in an interconnected public transit system then we wouldn’t be forced to only travel along our lines from Boston. We could go to Fitchburg from Worcester or Lowell from Framingham. We need a public transit system which looks like a spider-web and not simply radiating lines from Boston. From there our reliance on gas would decrease and our frustration when prices increase could be subsided. So, do not blame the war for gas prices; blame a public transit system which is not effective in moving people laterally between lines and especially blame those in the oil industry who are profiting from the suffering of the largest refugee crisis on the European continent since World War II.


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