Saturday, March 14, 2009

New Funding for Amtrak a Blessing

What a breath of fresh air that we finally have an administration that supports Amtrak. The beleaguered rail system has been demeaned and starved for so long it’s amazing there’s anything left of it. Now, perhaps, it can start serving a broader purpose and take some of the pressure off air travel and its gargantuan environmental footprint. It’s been hard to find much sympathy for Amtrak among the general public, so effective has been the propaganda against it. But one circumstance in particular has always provided an opportunity to think more charitably about the virtues of rail: weather-related delays at airports. Having been a victim of innumerable such delays (mostly at O’Hare, which seems to be in an eternal bad weather vortex) I have never wasted the chance to suggest to my fellow sufferers that now would be a good time to call their members of Congress and ask for new investments in Amtrak. I point out that for shorter trips—less than 500 miles—train service could be a lot more efficient and less time-consuming than air travel with its long security lines, advance check in times, and predictably unpredictable delays.

Amtrak suffers from numerous problems, or course: degraded tracks, aging equipment, and second-class status to freight traffic on east-west routes. The factor of second-class status is a huge one, and one of the greatest detriments to the system. Rarely does any east or west-bound Amtrak train arrive or leave on schedule; and this unreliability factor is like a death sentence in a world where most important activities—business meetings, vacations, family events—abide by firm schedules. In Europe the trains tend to run on exact schedules, and they often ride on state-of-the-art tracks at speeds double or triple what an automobile could achieve. But here in the US, where the mystique of the “rugged individual” (and its partner “personal freedom”) has been used for years to deny public support for things like trains and health care, trains usually run on degraded tracks, at 19th century speeds, and on schedules so undependable that ridership is limited mainly to those who are afraid of flying, or who love trains for their own sake.

Imagine if we had trains running east west at 150 mph. DC to Pittsburgh would take about two hours. Chicago to DC would take about 5 hours. A cross-country trip could be completed in one day with a single overnight. I happen to like Amtrak trains already, even though most of the equipment is aging. I like the freedom to get up and walk around, the convenience (if not the offerings) of the cafĂ© car, the electric sockets for charging computers and cell phones, and the sense of community that I often feel (people tend to be a lot more relaxed on trains than on airplanes). I also like the absence of heightened security and its associated lines and inconveniences (isn’t it fun to remove one’s shoes at the airport!). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our trains felt as clean and modern as most airplanes? And think how much we could cut CO2 emissions: a passenger on a train requires about 1/10th the greenhouse gas output compared to one traveling by plane.

So, all I can say is it’s about time! And let’s not stop with small investments in Amtrak. Let’s invest enough to fix the big problems and make train travel the mode of choice for all Americans.

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