COMMENTARY: Amtrak, Congress needs to get with it

Special to HuntingtonNews.Net
COMMENTARY: Amtrak, Congress needs to get with it

by Rene A. Henry (A Charleston, WV native remembers....)

Seattle, WA (HNN)  – I love trains.  And, because I love riding trains I wish the senior management of Amtrak, the people responsible for passenger train service in our country, Congress and some of our governors would just get their acts together.

I’ve been fortunate to have been a passenger on some of the best trains in the U.S. and overseas.  I was excited about high speed rail service in 1969 when Amtrak introduced the Metroliner between Washington, D.C. and New York City as a result of the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965.  A number of times I have ridden the Metroliner and its successor, the Acela, when it began service in 2000.  My hope was that I would see such service expanded throughout the U.S.  But it hasn’t happened.  And in my lifetime, it probably never will.

Responsible are all of the current and past CEOs and board members of Amtrak and members of Congress for letting our passenger rail service deteriorate to that of a Third World or emerging economy country.  During a time when the U.S. should have been building high speed rail, Amtrak did little or nothing to convince Congress to commit funds for high speed rail.  And Congress, including members of both parties in both houses, did exactly what the airlines and their lobbyists wanted them to do.

Even worse, as a part of its plan to reduce the nation’s obscene, skyrocketing deficit, the Republican Party is calling for the elimination of the high speed rail program.  Some Republican governors have even refused federal funding that would come to their states for high speed rail.  No one has done a cost analysis of how it would improve airline safety and stop the increasing taxpayer funds needed at airports for larger terminals, new runways, new equipment and more security.  

Trains are very convenient.  In heavy air traffic corridors, high speed rail would eliminate countless commuter flights.  Hundreds of near miss collisions every year could be avoided.  Maybe the politicians are just waiting for a disaster to happen.  That is about the only way to get the attention of some members of Congress.  They obviously never have the hassle or delays clearing security at airports like their constituents.

Only California is looking to the future.  Taxpayers have funded $43 billion for an 800-mile system with trains traveling 220 miles per hour between San Francisco, Fresno, Los Angeles and San Diego.  Construction is scheduled to begin next year and create 100,000 new jobs.  The pessimists in Washington should spend more time in the West.

In the early 90s, airline lobbyists killed high speed rail in Texas that would have linked Dallas with Houston and San Antonio with stops in Austin, Waco and College Station.  According to preliminary plans, the system would be operational today.

As a young child growing up in Charleston, W.Va., I often rode the C&O (Chesapeake and Ohio) to visit family in Louisville and New York.  The train service then was excellent.  Outside of the high speed Acela service in the Washington-Boston corridor, nothing today even comes close to being comparable.  If this service were duplicated in other parts of the country, travelers wouldn’t have two-hour checkins, be stranded at airports because of bad weather, or have their luggage lost at destination.  Also, politicians would not be spending untold billions to support the airline industry they deregulated and the air space would be far less congested.  

No hassle train service from downtown-to-downtown eliminates the cost of taxis and shuttles.  Someone needs to do an analysis on the billions of dollars that would be saved in time alone.  In many congested traffic corridors, high speed rail will even get passengers to their in-city destinations faster than flying.

Gone are the elegant dining cars where you could always depend on excellent food and service.  They have been replaced by “café” cars serving junk food that can hardly pass for even bad junk food.  Don’t try to get a boarding pass or ticket on line in advance of your trip like you can with an airline or for trains in most parts of the world.  Amtrak, learning from the way airlines have nickelled and dimed customers for every conceivable service, now charges extra for such service.  And freight trains have the right-of-way over passenger trains.  Unbelievable.

I consider myself fortunate to have had ridden the New York Central’s famous 20th Century Limited from New York City overnight to Chicago.  It was great to have a cocktail in your compartment before dinner as the train travelled along the scenic Hudson River.  The Pullman porter would get you whatever you needed – ice, glasses, mixers and hors d’oeuvres.

Another train ride I loved was the California Zephyr from Oakland, California with magnificent views of the California Sierras and Colorado Rockies and two restful nights sleeping across the Nevada desert and Iowa flatlands before arriving in Chicago.

For scenery and wildlife nothing beats the Alaska Railroad and its observation cars from Anchorage to Fairbanks.  Someday I hope to be a passenger on the historic and luxurious Venice Orient Express.

Internationally no U.S. train can compare to Japan’s Shinkansen or “Bullet Train” which began operation in 1964.  Last year the train carried 138 million passengers at speeds of 186 miles per hour.  Central Japan Railroad committed $62 billion to build a magnetic-levitation train that will travel the 180-mile route from Tokyo to Nagoya in 40 minutes at 311 miles per hour.  That’s even faster than most politicians can think.  It is scheduled for completion in 2027.  Japan, France, and China are into their second and third generations of high speed rail while our leaders in transportation and politics are doing nothing.

Even Mexico is ahead of the U.S. with its train from Ciudad Chihuahua to Los Mochis through the magnificent Copper Canyon.  It is immaculately clean and not only has a café/snack car, but a full service dining car where diners are served with crystal, silver and china and it is available at any time of day with a full menu.  

I recently discussed the U.S. transportation and train travel situation with a friend who didn’t think we will ever have rail service in our country comparable to the rest of the world.  He blamed our bureaucracy and said by the time any system would be operational it would be prohibitively expensive because of cost overruns and delays, it would be years behind schedule, and by the time anything is operational the technology and system would be obsolete. 

In the time it would take many countries to have a system planned, designed, built and operating, our leaders would still be debating who to appoint to the planning committee.\

Democracy is great and the only form of government under which I would want to live, but we need to make it livable by eliminating red tape and expediting the process.  This is when I wear the hat of a libertarian.

Rene A. Henry lives in Seattle, is the author of seven books, and writes of a variety of subjects.  He is a frequent contributor to HNN and many of his articles are posted on his website at


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