ESSAY- On Amtrak: You can't get there from here...
Nearly everything about my recent vacation in Florida was perfect: the beaches, wildlife, sunsets, you name it. My only disappointment? The way I got there.
I took a plane, as anyone who lives 1,500 miles away would. Not that anything went wrong; the trip was pretty stress-free. Instead, I was disappointed that I couldn't take a train– couldn't stroll to the Amtrak station in my Vermont hometown, board a coach car with plush seats, leg room, and picture windows, rumble down the Atlantic coast and really see America, rather than gazing blankly at clouds from 30,000 feet.
Okay, technically I could have taken the train. But to reach Fort Myers, I would've had to endure an overnight layover in New York, a 25-hour train ride to Tampa, and two-hour bus ride. I wanted to see America, but not lose a third of my vacation before even arriving at my destination.
It shouldn't be this way. Americans, known for technological innovation, shouldn't have to be embarrassed that Europe and Asia have faster, more convenient and reliable passenger rail systems. Railroad travel was once ubiquitous in the U.S., but since the 1950s– when the automobile and interstate highway system began replacing it– passenger rail here has become a shell of what it once was. Amtrak's annual ridership was up 11 percent last year, to 28.7 million (a record), but compare that to the nearly 650 million passengers taking domestic flights on American Airlines in 2008.
One big problem: when it comes to passenger rail, you can't get there from here. While the U.S. claims more than 140,000 miles of Class I railroad line, and freight railroads haul more than 40 percent of all U.S. freight– everything from lumber to vegetables, coal to chemicals, grain to scrap iron– Amtrak travels along a mere 21,000 miles of those lines. As a result, many Americans aren't even served by Amtrak today; it doesn't even go to Wyoming or South Dakota, to most of Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Idaho or Maine. And on the routes that do exist, congestion and delays often happen because Amtrak shares most of its track with freight companies.
Adding insult to injury, our undersized passenger rail system has been grossly under-funded. For decades, Congress passed bare-bones Amtrak budgets, with fiscal conservative legislators citing the agency's lack of routes and stations as cause to shut down the government-owned corporation. Amtrak critics claim they dislike propping up a transportation system that should, in their minds, pay its own way.
But if it's public funding that budget hawks are upset about, why do they continue to provide the airline and auto industries with billions? What's more, not a single well-functioning passenger train system in the world functions without public funding.
Those of us who love trains and appreciate their ability to reduce air pollution and cut carbon emissions know this is a perfect time for passenger rail to make a comeback. Not only are Americans fed up with congested highways and airport security lines, but they're also seeking travel options that reduce foreign oil dependence and don't contribute as heavily to climate change.
Here, Amtrak delivers. In 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, Amtrak was 18 percent more fuel-efficient than the airlines per passenger mile, and 24 percent more fuel efficient than cars. Amtrak has also swapped some diesel locomotives for electric ones, and trialed a hybrid locomotive. It's even testing biodiesel fuel on its Heartland Flyer, running from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.
High-speed rail too holds promise. In the stimulus bill passed by Congress in February, $8 billion was invested in high-speed rail projects that will benefit both Amtrak and state departments of transportation. The stimulus also provided $1.3 billion for Amtrak to rebuild infrastructure and upgrade safety. But after decades of neglect, Congress must invest far more if Amtrak is to catch up. Vice President Joe Biden, who used to commute from Delaware to his Senate seat in Washington on Amtrak, could be a real advocate for trains in Congress. But so must we.
Why not see if Amtrak can fit conveniently into your summer vacation plans? It goes to some great tourist spots, including San Diego, Orlando, Washington, and the Rocky Mountains; often the train is cheaper than the plane. Check for routes and stations at
Better yet, lobby Congress for new routes and stations that service your region and hometown. Or recruit local train lovers and start an advocacy group. If hundreds of citizens showed up in Congress demanding passenger train service to Fort Myers, Fla., Cheyenne, Wyo., or Nashville, Tenn. that would get people's attention.
It may seem old-fashioned to embrace a mode of transportation that had its heyday in the 19th century. But progress sometimes means taking a step back.
Former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Caroline Abels, whose essay is distributed by Blue Ridge Press, now edits Vermont's Local Banquet magazine.