by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
May 12, 2006
IT'S TIME TO PUT RAIL SERVICE ON THE FAST TRACK
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It's hard to believe, but the Republican Party actually thought that giving Americans a $100 tax rebate to help deal for the rising cost of gasoline was a good idea that people would support.
Americans rightly laughed that idea into oblivion. They saw that the token C-note the GOP was offering is dwarfed by the billions of dollars of tax breaks and subsidies that the oil companies get.
If Republicans really want to take a step toward dealing with increased energy costs, here's one thing they could try - start giving more money to Amtrak.
This month, Amtrak marks its 35th anniversary. It's not a happy one.
Amtrak has been underfunded and badly run since its creation in 1971, when the railroads were happy to dump their antiquated equipment and worn-out infrastructure onto the federal government.
Republicans have long wanted to kill off Amtrak, citing the billions of dollars of government subsidies the rail service has needed to stay in business. Never mind that many more billions in subsidies have been spent on building highways and bailing out bankrupt airlines over the past 35 years. In the minds of Republicans, anything that is government-run is bad.
As a result, the nation's rail service is a national embarrassment when we look at the advanced rail systems of other nations.
I live in Vermont, where we have one daily Amtrak train, the Vermonter, which stops in the nearest big town, Brattleboro. The 200-mile trip to New York City takes nearly six hours to complete.
Despite all the technological advances of the past 70 years, rail service is worse than it was in the 1930s. A look at a Boston & Maine Railroad timetable from September 1938 shows that there were six trains daily from Brattleboro to New York, and all but one got passengers to Grand Central Terminal or Penn Station in under six hours. Two of those trains allowed you to connect in Greenfield, Mass., for a Boston-bound train.
Getting sleek trains like the Acela - the high-speed electric train between Boston and New York - is just a dream in Western New England. But steam trains routinely ran at speeds up to 100 mph back in the 1930s and 1940s and fast, frequent service was the norm until after World War II, when Americans abandoned trains for automobiles.
Now we've come full circle. Driving to New York or Boston from Vermont is expensive, inconvenient and not very enjoyable, and there are few other transportation options.
Despite all its problems, Amtrak carried more than 25 million passengers last year. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, rail patronage has steadily increased, particularly in the Northeast. Rail service is an important part of the transportation mix and should not be overlooked.
In France, you can go from Paris to Marseilles in three hours. It's the same distance as Boston to Washington, a rail trip that even on the Acela takes up to eight hours. In Germany, you can go from Berlin to Hamburg, a distance of 177 miles, in 90 minutes.
France and Germany are two of 14 nations that have made substantial investments in high-speed rail service, while the United States balks at spending money on public transit.
Privatizing Amtrak, as many Republicans want to do, would be a disaster. Look at what happened in Britain when it privatized its rail system in the mid-1990s. It turned out to be such a great failure - poor service, more accidents, higher fares - that Britain had to pull the plug on the scheme and re-nationalize the rail system at a cost of more than $40 billion - $10 billion more than the total spent on Amtrak since 1971.
In this country, the states have had to pick up much of the slack for the ongoing federal neglect. For example, Vermont's two trains, the Vermonter and the Ethan Allen Express, would not exist if Vermont didn't help to pay for their operation.
There needs to be a greater commitment on both the state and federal level to improved passenger and freight service. Rail service is less polluting, less energy-dependent and more land-conserving than highways. And most of the rail network that was built a century ago, or at least in some cases, the rights-of-way, is already in place.
So why not more passenger service? Why not better freight service? Why can't state governments, aided by the federal government, create a rail network on a par with other industrialized nations? If the GOP says that it would cost too much, the best response would be to enact a windfall profits tax on oil companies to pay for these and other energy saving ideas.
Improved rail service would have a hugely positive impact on our nation's economy, as well as the environment, at a relatively low cost. All it takes is the political will to stop blindly shoveling money at the oil companies.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.