Every progressive country in the world recognizes the importance, ease, comfort, and relative economy of moving people by rail. Yet members of Congress who readily grant more handouts or special treatment to the admittedly troubled airline industry think nothing of denouncing any kind of subsidy for Amtrak, the national passenger railroad.
Amtrak officials have threatened to end service on 18 long-distance routes, some of them, including the Empire Builder and the Santa Fe Southwest Chief, storied routes in American history, unless Congress coughs up $1.2 billion for fixing up its trains, stations, tracks, and rail yards. Also consigned to the bone yard of history would be the Capitol Limited and the Lakeshore Limited, which would mean the virtual end of train service in Toledo and northwest Ohio. These trains, to borrow the words of Steve Goodman's song, City of New Orleans, have “the disappearing railroad blues.”
As a spokesman for the United Rail Passenger Alliance put it, since transcontinental service began in 1869, “there never has been a time when you couldn't go coast to coast by rail.”
The grand scheme of the current Republican administration could not be more clear. Billions more for defense, but not one cent more for railroads, a key component of any national transportation system. It is almost as if Osama bin Laden handed President Bush a crowbar to dismantle the nation's passenger rail system, and he has seized the moment with gusto.
It is an insane proposal. High-speed rail should be advanced as rapidly as possible to serve major rail corridors including the New York to Chicago corridor. Limiting train service to the eastern seaboard is a sure formula for disaster, and Congress should absolutely refuse to buy into it.
Long-range trains are considered money losers, even though they contribute most to the romance of rail travel. Service on long runs is hampered by the dinosaur outlook of freight-handling railroads, which look upon passenger service as a nuisance, and the lack of proper infrastructure at rail terminals in many cities. Car rentals are almost impossible in many areas unless the traveler takes a cab to the airport. And too often railroad terminals tend to be negative advertising for those considering a rail alternative.
Every nation must build a train system for its own needs. An American rail system must take into consideration not only service in urbanized corridors, but also transportation links with the far-flung reaches of the country that are seldom well served by convenient and economic air transportation.
No particular dollar figure is suggested here. The guiding philosophy in Congress should be, however, that for a balanced transportation system, train service is and should be considered basic.
The various budget-busting schemes of the Bush administration, such as a Star Wars missile defense whose justification is far from clear, could easily be trimmed to accommodate building and maintenance of a sensible commuter and long-range rail system for America.