The Breakup of Amtrak Gets Closer

I’ve writ­ten before that one of the things that Pam and I val­ue high­ly is good mass tran­sit. We’ve rid­den trains in France (and I’ve rid­den them in Ger­many, Italy, Switzer­land, and the UK in the past) and it has always struck me that well-run, mod­ern, clean and effi­cient train trav­el is an indi­ca­tor of how civ­i­lized your coun­try is, if not the over­all qual­i­ty of life for that country’s cit­i­zen­ry. The ‘com­mon good’, a con­cept that has all but van­ished in the States, is embod­ied in a very vis­i­ble way in trains on a dai­ly basis to mil­lions of peo­ple. With the end of the era of cheap oil rapid­ly approach­ing, we should be get­ting trains ready to han­dle more com­muters and long dis­tance trav­el­ers. There is no pas­sen­ger air­plane that oper­ates on any­thing but petro­le­um-based fuel. High-speed trains can run on elec­tric­i­ty, with­out fuel cells, new­ly designed engines or any­thing else that requires mas­sive retool­ing or tech­no­log­i­cal leaps. Oth­er coun­tries learned decades ago that a good net­work of trains can reap ben­e­fits far out­weigh­ing the costs of run­ning them; only the US has this strange notion that its pas­sen­ger trains are not a pub­lic ser­vice, but instead have to be prof­itable ven­tures. They also keep pro­mot­ing the use of fos­sil fuels, glob­al warm­ing and con­gest­ed high­ways. You know, The Amer­i­can Way of Life.

So, it was with a great deal of dis­tress that I read this head­line in the New York Times this morn­ing: Amtrak Breakup Advances. In an unan­nounced vote that was “report­ed on Wednes­day in the newslet­ter of the Unit­ed Rail Pas­sen­ger Alliance of Jack­sonville, Fla., an orga­ni­za­tion that has been high­ly crit­i­cal of Amtrak man­age­ment”, Amtrak’s 4-per­son Board approved the carv­ing off the North­east cor­ri­dor of Amtrak, the routes between Boston and Wash­ing­ton (the ones I used to ride on), as a ‘sep­a­rate divi­sion’. This is one of the biggest changes to the orga­ni­za­tion, and would on the one hand “relieve Amtrak from spend­ing bil­lions of dol­lars to build and rebuild bridges, rails and elec­tri­cal sys­tems, but still let the com­pa­ny run its trains.” Most impor­tant­ly, and the one that makes me the sad­dest:

The plan would also remove Amtrak from con­trol of that sec­tor, a con­di­tion that the railroad’s senior exec­u­tives say would doom high-speed long-dis­tance ser­vice. Man­agers say they have to be able to give their trains pri­or­i­ty over local traf­fic if they have any hope of keep­ing their sched­ules.

Fur­ther down in the arti­cle, it’s clear what’s real­ly going on:

Amtrak sup­port­ers saw dark­er motives in the board’s vote. Sen­a­tor Frank R. Laut­en­berg, Demo­c­rat of New Jer­sey, one of four main spon­sors of a bipar­ti­san bill to shore up the rail­road, said sep­a­rat­ing the cor­ri­dor was intend­ed to pack­age it for a change in own­er­ship.
“The Bush admin­is­tra­tion wants to hold a fire sale on Amtrak and dump its best asset, the North­east Cor­ri­dor,” Mr. Laut­en­berg said in a state­ment. “Sell­ing the North­east cor­ri­dor is the first step in Pres­i­dent Bush’s plan to destroy Amtrak and inter­ci­ty rail ser­vice in Amer­i­ca.”

I loved the Acela train for all of its flaws. I took it from Boston to New York a few times over the brief time it was run­ning while I lived there, and always found the trip far more enjoy­able than the Delta shut­tle or dri­ving our car. Fly­ing was and is a huge has­sle, now made even more expen­sive on the one hand by the price of fuel, and uncom­fort­able and stress­ful due to the secu­ri­ty mea­sures guard­ing against ter­ror­ism. On the Acela, I got on board in down­town Boston, at the com­fort­able and famil­iar South Sta­tion (right from the local sub­way from my house in Cam­bridge). I didn’t have to check my bags or resort to the long lines by radar detec­tors. I arrived at Penn Sta­tion in New York City, and although that’s not the gor­geous Grand Cen­tral Sta­tion (one of my favorite places in the US), I didn’t have to take a cab to or from an air­port at either end of the jour­ney. While the train wasn’t the cheap­est game in town (the Fung Wah bus from Chi­na­town had every­body beat by a mile in that depart­ment), there was noth­ing nicer than hav­ing break­fast as we pulled out of Boston, watch­ing a DVD on my lap­top (and plug­ging it in to the wall out­lets), watch­ing the scenes of Con­necti­cut seashore, view­ing the approach of the big city in the win­dows and arriv­ing in Man­hat­tan by ear­ly after­noon, relaxed and ready for busi­ness, vis­it­ing with friends or sight­see­ing.
Here in Van­cou­ver, they are not tear­ing apart mass tran­sit. In fact, over some oppo­si­tion over exact­ly where and how it was being built, Van­cou­ver is build­ing a new mass tran­sit line called the RAV (Rich­mond-Air­port-Van­cou­ver), which is a rail-based sys­tem link­ing Van­cou­ver with the air­port to the west and Rich­mond to the south. It’s part of the project to get the city able to accom­mo­date the Win­ter Olympics in 2010.

A final bit of irony on that web page for the New York Times arti­cle: One of the most promi­nent ads in the right side­bar area was a set for the Hum­mer H3.