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Monday, March 07, 2005

Talking Transportation: Saving Amtrak

By Jim Cameron

Special to WestportNow

The wind is howling, the snows blowing. As we endure another late-winter blizzard, I-95 is its usual mess. The airports are as good as closed, but I’m on my way to Boston with nary a worry. Im riding the fastest train on the continent—AmtrakҒs Acela.

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I can use my laptop and stay productive as we shoosh along at 125 mph. Or I can nap in the cellphone-free “quiet car”—something Ive been lobbying Metro-North to adopt for years. IҒll arrive in Boston rested, probably too-well fed, and most likely on-time. Is there any better way to travel?

We along Connecticuts ғGold Coast are truly blessed, especially thanks to our ancestorsԒ foresight in building what is still a great railroad infrastructure. As challenged as Metro-North may be, Amtrak has got it right. But our inter-state travels are again being threatened by Washingtons threats to end Amtrak subsidies.

The Amtrak board of directors, dominated by Bush appointees, wants to force the railroad into bankruptcy, they say, ғfor its own good.” Their hope is that they can force Amtrak President David Gunn to finally spin-off the few money-making services in the heavily traveled Northeast and California to private ventures, and then shut down the money-losing long distance trains in the West.

But, as in past funding crises, Gunn is holding his ground, arguing that the entire system should be expanded, not Balkanized. And hes right.

Gunn is a crusty old railroad guy. I met him first when I was a reporter at NBC News and Gunn had just arrived in New York City to save the subways. And did he ever! His career included similar successes in Boston with the MBTA and DCҒs Metro.

During his tenure in NYC, he and I lived in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn and rode the same subways to work. Wed often ride together and discuss his job. He was honest to a fault and earned the respect of both riders and politicians.

In fact, he was lured out of retirement in Canada to take on the Amtrak challenge, a thankless task. He has nothing to lose in keeping his hard-line stance against the White House. But we all have much to gain.

Amtrak subsidies are sizable. But no railroad can run at a profit these days, which is why Amtrak was created. If private enterprise could run a railroad, theyҒd be doing so. The question isnt the subsidy but the public benefit it buys us all.

Imagine travel without Amtrak. You think I-95 is crowded now? AmtrakҒs Northeast corridor carries more passengers than the shuttles. It runs in all weather. And with Acela, its luring business travelers back from the airports. Lose Amtrak and our airports will be jammed and the highways impassable.

The economies of Connecticut cities like Stamford, New Haven and even Hartford depend on Amtrak feeding passengers into its businesses, hotels and restaurants. Without Amtrak, would a SwissBank really want to be headquartered in Stamford or a Pfizer in New London?

OK, IҒll admit it. Im a rail fan. A certifiable ғfoamer (so named by the railroads because we rail fans foam at the mouth at the sight of a train). And I hate flying, though I do so often because of my work.

But I can think of no other means of transportation as reliable, affordable and convenient as rail. Visit any civilized country in the world and youԒll see rail as a vital component of public transit. Why not the United States?

Amtrak must be saved and, in fact, expanded. Even if you never ride Acela you benefit from its being there. So call your congressman and senators. Write the President and tell him we need the trains.

jimcameron75.jpg(Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 14 years. He is vice chairman of the Connecticut Metro-North Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council and a member of the Coastal Corridor Transportation Investment Area, one of five Transportation Investment Areas established by the Connecticut General Assembly in July 2001 to develop 20-year strategic plans for each of the state’s major transportation corridors. He is also a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting. The opinions and accuracy of information in this article are the responsibility of the contributor. E-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or http://www.trainweb.org/ct)

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Posted 03/07/05 at 04:10 AM  Permalink



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Nice article Jim. I agree with you that train travel is much underrated and underused, and I only wish that it was as developed as in Europe, for example. However, I disagree with your assessment of how its future should be handled.

“But no railroad can run at a profit these days, which is why Amtrak was created.” Didn’t people say this about the airlines?

That is until Southwest and JetBlue came around, with superior customer service, fair pricing, and significantly less painless travel. All other airlines receiving government aid are either in or on the brink of bankruptcy.

Amtrak could be profitable, just as United, Delta, or American could be. What�s the incentive if the government continually bails them out?

The bottom line: We need to stop wasting money in subsidies, let these mismanaged companies fail, and let someone else take over who can make it work.

Posted by Christian Myers on March 07, 2005 at 06:19 AM | #
 

Yes, but… We only have one railroad, if that. There are dozens of airlines, 90% of them losing money. If the competitive landscape in air travel shakes out, we’ll still have air service. If Amtrak goes under, we have nothing.

JC

Posted by Jim Cameron on March 07, 2005 at 01:23 PM | #
 

Wait, didn’t you suggest that the alternative would be for private enterprise to take over the service in our part of the country (and California)? The private sector operates our airlines. Perhaps there is such interest in operating our regional rail route? Has there been any exploration of this possiblity?

It does seem logical that the more densely populated areas would be more profitable than areas where there are fewer passengers to take the trains.

There would probably be a period of transition and perhaps this creates uncertainty.

Thank you for a thought-provoking article.

Judy Starr

Posted by Judy Starr on March 07, 2005 at 02:43 PM | #
 

The Republican idea that Amtrak is a bottomless pit of waste and inefficiency and that other modes of transportation pay their own way is nonsense. No mode of transportation is more subsidized in America than highways. Without untold billions of annual taxpayer investment, we would have no new highway projects and an (even more) crumbling infrastructure. Add some of the cheapest gas in the world (with some of the lowest gas taxes), and there’s a huge, government-supported incentive to drive. Airlines continue to receive billions in obvious and backdoor government support as well. Trains have been starved of resources for years.

Posted by another train fan on March 07, 2005 at 03:40 PM | #
 

Nice article, and I agree Amtrak is great in the Northeast corridor, but I don’t blame a Texan President for thinking Amtrak, across such long distances, doesn’t make sense.
I am saddened to see funding for rail service the subject of such controversy, and then see what is happening at Westport’s own rail station. How can we be concerned over the rail deficits when we see work that was supposed to be done last summer continue at a snail’s pace with no accountability to the customers who are using the service? As I see it government may be good at governing; they are bad at business.

Posted by Jeff Wieser on March 07, 2005 at 05:13 PM | #
 

Yes, what in blazes is the deal with the Westport Station renovation? The new “waiting room looks like the old waiting room,” only with fewer seats. It seems like the new tunnel is taking longer than the English Chunnel project. And isn’t the plan for renovations to the existing tunnel, which is badly leaking and poorly lit, in the offing as well? Inquiring minds want to know.

Posted by Andy Yemma on March 07, 2005 at 08:23 PM | #
 

Thank you Jim for posting your article.
1.Our country cannot be limited to our modes of transportation.
2.Amtrak is an asset to our society.
3.Amtrak creates many 1000’s of jobs outside of its inside workforce.
The 20,000+ Amtrak employees pay millions of dollars in Federal & State Taxes.
4.Current administrations are supposed to be about creating jobs for Americans not eliminating jobs.
5.Amtrak is an asset to our Homeland Security.
6. The end funding of Amtrak will wreck havoc on the Rail Road Retirement Board.
7. Where else can a family rent a bedroom, have a quality full course meal and travel across our country to visit their grandparents?
8. What other modes of transportation accomodiate senior citizens traveling across our country who cannot fly?
9. Raising the gas tax 1 penny per gallon in every state will fund our only Passenger Rail System.
10. It will cost our government more money to eliminate Amtrak then it would to continue funding.

Posted by Ray Patterson on March 07, 2005 at 10:20 PM | #
 

Jeff Wieser said “but I don’t blame a Texan President for thinking Amtrak, across such long distances, doesn’t make sense. “

That same Texan went on public record as Governor of Texas and stated “Amtrak and its funding are the responsibility of the Federal Government.” I don�t recall the exact wording of the quote, but you get the idea. This was in response to the potential cancellation of the Texas Eagle several years ago, a long distance train that serves its namesake.

When he was a Governor it was a Federal responsibility, now that he’s President, it�s the State’s responsibility.

I wish he would make up his mind!

Posted by Alan Burden on March 07, 2005 at 10:47 PM | #
 

I was fortunate enough to have lived in Amsterdam, Holland for 5 1/2 years. I’m sure you can guess what I am about to write.
Upon arrival at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, you can board a train inside the airport terminal that will take you to any European city. The train at the airport will also take you to the Centraal Station in Amsterdam where you can hop on a city tram or another train or a bus or the metro and be transported to any local area in a very reasonable amount of time, very reliably, very efficiently, and very inexpensively. Having an automobile in almost any major European city (Vienna, Paris, London, etc.) in unnecessary because of the sophisticated and easy access to public transportation.
When I returned to the United States, I readily noticed how backwards we are as a country when it comes to sophisticated transportation. The Europeans understand that public transportation is a major contributor to a healthy economy and a healthy society. The USA does not grasp this concept. The USA is embedded with the big oil conglomerates and this government has chosen to do the bidding of the oil companies and not the bidding of its citizens.
We should have had a high-speed cross-country train system years ago. We should have had a lot of things years ago. There needs to be a strong national commitment to having such a system. The advantages need to be pointed out. Not everything is about the bottom line. “Build it and they will come”. I can’t use a train system that doesn’t exist. But if it existed, I would use it. And I doubt that I am alone in making that statement.

Rozanne Gates

Posted by Rozanne Gates on March 10, 2005 at 06:04 PM | #