Is Amtrak Ready for Global Warming?

Three days after Irene slammed the East Coast, Amtrak reopened for business, and I boarded a train for a trip I have taken countless times over the last twenty-five years. The journey from Providence, Rhode Island, to New York City, is a train ride I love, no matter how unreliable or maddeningly slow the service might be–and there have been some real doozies, six or seven hours for a trip that shouldn’t take longer than three hours. And that’s on the express. But after Irene, the passage held none of its usual charm. Instead, it seemed to border on an act of lunacy that we should still be riding that train at all.

The route is one of the country’s most beautiful, and most heavily traveled. It skirts the coast of Connecticut for many miles; I always sit on the east side of the train because the views are breathtaking. Over the years, I’ve gazed out the window as ospreys returned to platforms set up in salt marshes, their messy nests spilling off the sides. The nests were intact after the hurricane. Small, quiet ponds were covered with water lilies. Coves and inlets were calm, with kayakers joining the ducks and geese.

A few large motorboats were smashed up against boulders, reminding us of the folly of ignoring storm warnings.  Trees were uprooted and lay toppled by the side of the tracks. Cormorants standing on the skeletal remains of trusses fanned their capelike wings to dry. Bulldozers raked across sandy beaches, cleaning up for Labor Day crowds.

We passed sprawling power plants, their red and white striped stacks jaunty against the blue sky, and playgrounds, school bus yards, ferries, shipyards and day care centers, church steeples, beacons to sea farers, jutted over the landscape–all of life is laid out along this major artery.

But there is a new addition to the scenery. For many miles, the track is barely above sea level. We crawled along so as not to threaten construction crews hard at work all along the coast–on rigs, in cranes, in bulldozers. Even though we didn’t get the worst of what turned out to be a tropical storm, Irene–and her predecessors–had left her mark. Much of the track was shored up with riprap, boulders used to armor the coast against the pull of tidal surges. Slabs of cement were being lifted into place to protect stretches of tracks. Wire cage rock walls had been erected in some places.

It seemed almost laughable.

Any fisherman will tell you that a roiling ocean, even during something as common as a nor’easter, will shove boulders aside as though they were marbles. Child’s play. As we chugged along, two hours behind schedule, I wondered with some tenderness at how primitive is human hope–“Here,” we seem to be saying to the gods of storms, “take these boulders, take these cement slabs, but spare our tracks.” Who are we kidding? There is no reinforcement strong enough for the perilous severity of storm surges and rising oceans.

What are we thinking of, keeping such vital infrastructure so close to the sea? Of course we can’t just shut down the line and walk away. But we should be rebuilding only with future disruption in mind, and that will take more than wire cages full of rocks. Environmentalists study adaptation to global warming, discussing the opening of migration corridors for animals that will have to move northward to avoid killing heats, or to follow their food source. What about human adaptation? Amtrak’s troubles foreshadow trouble for life along the coast. We’re going to need more than a few tons of riprap to adapt to the storm warnings to come.

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