America turns to rail -- when will Congress?

October 25, 2001|By Christopher Ott

MADISON, Wis. -- The day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I tried calling Amtrak about a forthcoming trip. Usually this is quick and simple, but this time it took two days' worth of calls just to get past the busy signal. During the airline shutdown, Amtrak was honoring tickets from stranded passengers, and travelers nationwide suddenly turned to rail.

The stampede to the trains has ended, but Amtrak reports that ridership remains at summer peak levels. While airlines have cut service sharply, Amtrak ridership is 10 percent to 15 percent above the like period last year. Reservations for the next several months are nearly that high as well, prompting Amtrak President George Warrington to tell the Senate Commerce Committee that his agency could use 27 more first-class sleeping cars.

The aftermath of last month's airborne attacks made clear the need for travel options in the event of a short-term emergency. Concerns about flying, however, combined with time-consuming new airport security measures, might result in a long-term shift to rail.

Unfortunately, Congress still hasn't responded appropriately.

The need for high-speed rail networks is clearer than ever, and additional funds are needed for new rail security measures and service improvements. Besides meeting new demands and responding to emergencies, there are other reasons to support rail investment.

First, high-speed trains provide an alternative to congested highways and runways. Trains running 100 mph or more can easily outpace cars, and they also compete against planes, especially for trips within a few hundred miles. The time passengers spend waiting in airports sometimes makes travel lengthier than it would take simply to go by train. And rail is more dependable in bad weather.

Second, trains are more energy-efficient. They use about half the energy per passenger-mile that planes do, according to studies done by the Department of Energy. Greater reliance on rail can help reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy.

Third, trains help prevent sprawl. In many communities, train stations are centrally located, which can spur downtown development. These stations are also closer to major business districts and tourist attractions.

Finally, there's another reason to support the train, and for me, it's a personal one.

Two months before the Sept. 11 attacks, I happened to take a trip I'd been meaning to do for several years: a 6,300-mile journey around the Western United States. The scenic highlights -- many of which can't be seen from the highway or the air -- included beautiful mountain views in Montana, the forests of the Pacific Northwest, the oceanside cliffs of the California coast and the austere deserts of the Southwest.

I also got to know many people on the train. Spacious and comfortable trains make it easier to get into conversations with fellow passengers while having dinner or just watching the scenery roll by. Taking the train is a great way to appreciate the beauty of our country and its people. It's time for Congress to get on board.

Christopher Ott is a writer in Madison, Wis. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org or by writing to Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main St., Madison, Wis. 53703.

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