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Published: Saturday, 10/6/2001

America may finally come to realize importance of a 1st-class rail system

It started as a lonely whistle in the night. Then, as thoughtful people and frustrated travelers finally realized that the nation's transportation system was in crisis - virtual gridlock on the highways and airways - the rail lobby began to pick up a little bit of steam, a little bit of speed.

And now, following the events of Sept. 11, that noise level has grown exponentially and there appears to be some serious private and government commitment to rehabilitating and enlarging our national rail system well beyond the popular and populous eastern corridors and into those previously train-starved fly-over zones ... like ours.

A few nights ago on National Public Radio's Marketplace, a New York University journalism professor made such a persuasive, logical, and well-reasoned argument for the expansion of U.S. rail into the heartland that he had us pounding the dashboard of our SUV and screaming, “Yeah! Yeah!”

Then last Sunday, The Blade's lead editorial, “Look again to high speed rail,” also elaborated on the theme, pointing out, among other things, that we can no longer afford to rely on a single mode of mass transportation, and that in comparison with the $15 billion-plus airline bailout, the amount of public money being spent on Amtrak is pathetically inadequate.

The argument was made, too, that what this nation really needs are good, modern, comfortable 110-120 mph trains that can simply and reliably link more of our major cities.

In most observers' view, ours definitely included, trains in this country would be most cost-effective and competitive at distances of 400 miles or less. But even then, such a service must be frequent, regular, and user friendly - none of this one or two trains in the dead of night kind of stuff. And there also has to be a secondary infrastructure of buses, trams, or subways to carry those arriving rail passengers onward to their final destinations.

Parenthetically, for anyone familiar with the European model, it must seem strange indeed that all U.S. airports are not automatically linked to city center by rail ... or bus ... or some kind of regular mass-transport system. But they aren't.

Now, if that weren't editorial excitement enough, along came Andy Rooney on CBS's 60 Minutes weighing in with more telling arguments in favor of rail travel - major economies of fuel, the current existence of thousands of miles of empty tracks, the built-in “weather resistant” properties of rail transport, and an unlimited potential for precise on-time departures and arrivals.

He also suggested we look to Europe to see how such a national and international railway system can work.

Just a month ago, these would have been fighting words, dismissed as pie-in-the-sky dreaming. But now, with a High Speed Rail Reinvestment Act moving swiftly through Congress ... and thousands of people from every sector of industry looking for work ... the revitalization of the nation's railways seem like a pretty smart way of creating new jobs, solving airline and highway gridlock, and providing Americans with a safe and efficient alternative transport mode.

Anyone who has passed a glancing eye over our column for the past 18 years or so will know that rail travel has forever been both our hot button and our preferred method of locomotion. That preference stems, incidentally, from a steadily growing frustration with driving vacations in Europe, the exorbitant price of gasoline, expensive toll roads, hard-to-find parking, and desperately heavy traffic.

Then, in one glorious epiphanous moment in the summer of 1983, we bought a Eurailpass, packed a couple of light bags, got on a train, and were irretrievably hooked.

Since then we've ridden practically every Euro line from northernmost Sweden to southernmost Italy (not to mention Australia and Alaska), and despite the very occasional strike, disruptive demonstration, or cancellation, we've had 15 years of restful, stress-free travel.

In Europe, rail passengers travel in comfort from city center to city center with no baggage checks or check-ins. The trains almost always depart and arrive on time. Connections can be configured to the minute. And now, as an increasing number of high-speed services crisscross the continent, European trains have become “the only way to fly” for millions of people.

That's not to say there isn't competition. Several no-frills airlines have started up in Europe over the past few years, sometimes as an adjunct to a major carrier, sometimes as an independent. And these new airlines certainly offer a low-cost alternative to both road and rail.

But the Sept. 11 events, and the extra security and regulations that will have to be put in place as a result, must serve to somewhat reduce the time-saving and cost advantages of these kinds of commuter airlines.

The bottom line is that by adding a better-functioning and more expansive rail travel option to the U.S. transport mix, we can do nothing but improve the lot ... and temper ... of the traveling public. And then we will have finally turned that lonely whistle in the night into a full-blown siren song!

Readers may write to travel advisers Roger Holliday and Claudia Fischer at P.O. Box 272, Bowling Green, OH 43402. If a reply is desired, please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.



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