Working on the railroad

May 26, 2006

Commuters in the Washington-New York rail corridor had a rough morning yesterday. Thousands were left stranded for more than two hours when Amtrak suffered a power outage that halted trains in their tracks between the two cities. In Maryland, that included about 5,000 MARC Penn Line riders whose trains are operated by Amtrak crews on the same north-south track.

It was an unusual event - Amtrak officials had no immediate explanation of what caused the power outage - but veteran rail riders were likely less than shocked. Riding Amtrak sometimes requires the patience of Job - and an extremely flexible schedule. Nationally, about 30 percent of all Amtrak trains run late. MARC is somewhat better, but unplanned delays aren't exactly news there, either. In January, for instance, Maryland commuter trains had an 82 percent on-time performance record.

Between the delays, the fare increases, the shortage of parking at some stops, the crowded bus-like conditions of some of the more outdated cars, and the often surly attendants, you might assume that rail ridership was in a period of decline. And you'd be exactly wrong. Amtrak ridership is up, and so is MARC's. Commuters may have plenty of reasons to complain, but they must also have a strong motivation to take the train: MARC ridership has hit a historic high after nine straight years of growth.

That's why it's so frustrating that Amtrak is treated so shabbily by the White House. Over the years, the system may have been mismanaged at times, but it's also been half-starved. Amtrak badly needs to update its rail lines and other infrastructure. MARC needs an infusion of capital, too, but its situation has an added dimension. Any MARC expansion must pass muster with Amtrak and CSX, owners of MARC's Brunswick and Camden lines.

Passenger rail has untapped potential, and rising fuel costs only underscore the ridiculousness of the nation's failure to pursue it. Plenty of members of Congress understand this - so why can't President Bush? In a country addicted to oil, kicking the habit requires a serviceable fuel-efficient alternative to driving a car.

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