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More funding for Amtrak

An editorial in the Grand Rapids Press endorses more funding and support for Amtrak as part of the solution to our energy and global warming crisis. I couldn't agree more.

According to the editorial, ridership on the Grand Rapids-Chicago line has increased 75% from 2001 to 2006. And 2006 was a year of record ridership on Amtrak (established in 1971) with 25 million passengers. From the editorial:

[Amtrak's] future has always ridden on uncertain funding and received mixed signals. Presidents at some points have called for no federal contribution -- which would be a death knell for Amtrak -- only to have Congress save the day. A year-to-year scrap for survival is no way to build a robust national passenger rail system.

Congress would do far better to fund Amtrak the way it funds roads, in multi-year budgets that allow planning, consistency and steady improvement.

A measure in the U.S. Senate would accomplish those goals. The bill would shell out $11.4 billion in federal funds for Amtrak and other passenger rail services over six years and provide another $7.4 billion for rail development. The funds would require new on-time service standards. Those improvements are necessary to justify the investment.

Clearly, Michigan wants passenger rail service -- more and more of it. Congress can give that to the state and the country by promising steady funding that will build up the national passenger train system. In an age of rising energy costs and a national thirst for foreign oil, that's the right track to follow.

For once, I don't have to be embarrassed by my state's senators - Levin and Stabenow. They're supporting the bill.

And there's no reason we can't revolutionize national transportation through a significant investment in passenger trains and light rail. We've been there before:

Between 1870 and 1916, the total track mileage of U.S. railroads grew from 53,000 to 245,000 miles (85,000 to 394,000 km); during the same period, key technological innovations (including standard gauge track, more powerful locomotives, air brakes, signaling systems, and steel passenger cars) brought significant improvements in the safety and speed of rail travel. By 1910, railroads handled 95% of all intercity travel in the U.S. Peak volume of passenger rail travel was reached in 1920, when 1.2 billion passengers were carried.

[Via Wikipedia]



Absolutely. One reason I think passenger rail systems have struggled in this country is people can't rely on them. Underfunding a transportation system leaves people to wonder if it'll be open, safe, or consistently operating when they make their travel plans.

Yes, most people actually LIKE to drive themselves. They like the freedom and the convenience of leaving whenever they want and going wherever they want. But there are lots of other people (and times) when a clean, safe, and reliable rail system could be a real benefit.

I personally LOVE taking the train. I don't do it as often as I like because the departure times to my regular destinations (in Michigan, no less) are less than convenient, but when I do, it's great. You can have a drink and play some cards, take a nap, or shoot the shit with fellow passengers. I somtimes pretend I'm Ernest Hemingway. Is that wrong?

I'm actually taking a trip on Amtrak to Michigan this week-end.

Three thoughts:

1) I'm not sure if a single contiguous national passenger rail system is that great an idea as opposed to regional services that operate in heavy-traffic corridors. The Chicago - Milwaukee trains make much more sense than the Chicago - Seattle trains where, scenery aside, air travel has tremendous advantages. However, that might change once gas hits $4.00 a gallon.

2) I've had an idea for a while that might turn Amtrak profitable (!): Introduce casino cars. Make the trip enjoyable and entertaining while taking money from people who are only too happy to part with it. Consider what the cruise industry did with their ships. Ocean liner travel has been obsolete since the first 707 took to the air, but the cruise lines made the ocean voyage itself half the fun.

3) There are 3 reasons why Amtrak has not been dismantled: 1) It brings money into enough districts that enough legislators fight for it; 2) If I am correct, Amtrak's employees would be entitled to a tremendous severance package (like years); and 3) even if funding dried up, what would happen to all of the real estate and rolling stock? That stuff would still have to be stored and maintained. The latter two items would result in tremendous costs to the government with absolutely no benefits to the taxpayers.

Oh, and Derek, I'll be reading my copy of The Sun Also Rises as I roll through Indiana. I'm about 100 pages in - you're right, it's a differnet book than it was the last time I read it.

No, Phil, you're not wrong. On top of being a safer, cleaner, and more efficient mode of transport, trains are just that way. Plus, some of the best songs are about trains - Myster Train, Folsom Prison Blues, and Hear My Train a Comin' come to mind.

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