Friday, December 26, 2008

'All That’s Wrong With Rail Travel in America'

Jim Timmerman's column in yesterday's Holland (Michigan) Sentinel about the Pere Marquette fiasco earlier this week is a must read for anyone who cares about the state of intercity passenger rail in the United States.
"The simple four-hour ride that turned into a 16-hour nightmare for passengers between Chicago and Grand Rapids Sunday and Monday encapsulated all that’s wrong with rail travel in America — poor customer service, restrictive labor rules and Amtrak’s lack of control of the tracks it uses."
Timmerman excoriates Amtrak for the bone-headed decision by its crew members to pull a train bound for Grand Rapids that was about to go out of service into a freight yard one mile from the Holland station where it sat for three hours instead of letting passengers get off in Holland. He points out that despite all the problems with the Pere Marquette passengers continue to flock to the train, as ridership continues to grow "because riding the rails is — on most days — such a pleasant alternative to driving to and from Chicago.

America desperately needs an alternative to driving and flying for short- and mid-range inter-city travel. Rail service is the obvious option. Unfortunately in America, that means Amtrak. Amtrak constantly has to fight in Congress to keep its federal subsidy, which is simply a more direct version of the subsidies that air and car travel receive. Winning support is always a challenge in part because Amtrak keeps shooting itself in the foot with episodes like the Pere Marquette nightmare."

That is the fear; that bone-headed incidents like this and the nearly 24 hour delays in getting the Empire Builder and Lake Shore Limited out of Chicago Union Station a few days ago will shake the confidence of Amtrak supporters at a time when Amtrak's - and intercity passenger rail's - fortunes are poised to soar. Amtrak is in a position to tap into a number of funding sources to that could bring its system closer to a state of good repair and fund much-needed expansion: the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, the Kerry-Specter high-speed rail bill and the economic stimulus package now being debated in Congress.

But, American taxpayers wants to be reassured that their money will be invested soundly. Amtrak critics and passenger rail opponents will likely jump on these incidents to sew seeds of doubt about investing in rail. They will argue that money directed toward modes that have been proven and widely accepted - highways and air travel - are more likely to produce benefits, including jobs. It's an argument that must be rejected.

As Amtrak's CEO, Joe Boardman must quickly identify and implement concrete steps his company can take to improve reliability and make rail once-again an all-weather travel alternative. He must communicate them to the traveling public and gain support for them from railroad employees. For those items that are not in his company's control, he must begin efforts to secure necessary changes through negotiations with unions and freight railroads or legislation.

Amtrak must be viewed as part of the solution and not part of the problem. Otherwise, we are unlikley to realize the transportation reforms this country needs not only to reenergize its economy but to have a sustainable system of mobility that will allow us to travel freely with minimal impact upon the environment.

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