[D:F is on holiday break, but we wanted you to have this editorial to start the year... Jim RePass. ]
It will be tempting for the general news media - indeed, it will be well nigh irresistible --- to assail Amtrak for the service meltdown in the Midwest these past two weeks.
As you may have noticed, especially if you were on almost any train into or out of Chicago recently, many Amtrak trains over the Christmas holidays have been routinely several hours late, and in some cases annulled after departure. This was due to equipment failure, bad equipment put into service, and crew shortages that caused crews to turn "illegal" in the parlance of the rail industry, i.e., to be on duty so long that they would be in violation of Federal labor laws governing rail crews if they did not stop work.
It goes without saying that inconveniencing hundreds if not thousands of travelers over Christmas or any other time is a poor way to win anyone's favor.
Yet Amtrak's service meltdown should come as no surprise. For three decades the national passenger rail system has operated without adequate capital equipment, and with an operating subsidy that is so close to the bone that there is little room for error.
These past two weeks in Chicago have seen some of the coldest sustained weather in years, and equipment that has gotten by in previous cold waves has been freezing up in the yards, despite application of stand-by power. In addition, so many switch points have become frozen that the freight railroads over whose track Amtrak must operate have been unable to keep ahead of the curve, as freeze-up after freeze-up has occurred faster than work crews can be dispatched to unfreeze them.
Combine that with - oddly enough - the success of Amtrak over the past few years in re-starting trains that had been long discontinued, or going to greater frequencies on existing trains such as the Texas Eagle --- now seven days a week instead of three, and one of Amtrak's greatest success stories - and you have demands for equipment putting great strain on already overtaxed supply.
If there is a lesson to be learned from this Winter's discontent, it is that Amtrak must be given access to capital to buy the rolling stock, and man the yards, to meet the transportation demand of the American people. Every time Amtrak makes service improvements, the response from the public has been greater than the forecast. While that is a vote of confidence, or at least need, it is also a signal that we must move forward with a capital program for the nation's rails that improves capacity and service, and brings balance to the nation's transportation system. For while a handful of Amtrak trains experienced unacceptable service delays these past few weeks, for more than two years now we have seen the effects of winglock and gridlock on our nations airways and highways as, time after time, cascading system failure has lead to massive disruptions in the transportation matrix. For its part, Amtrak needs to do better. But it can only do so with real and substantial resources, which have heretofore been denied.
Just a few weeks ago Congress adjourned without acting on the High Speed Rail Investment Act, which would have provided $10 billion in bonding authority over 10 years to build rail capacity. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle promised that they will co-sponsor a reintroduction of that bill early in the new session. We should all resolve for the New Year that that is a promise which must be kept. While the weather can waylay anyone's plans, we must give Amtrak the resources to have a fighting chance to overcome the vicissitudes of a Midwest deep freeze, deep snows on the high plains, or the torment of a Southern summer heat wave. Amtrak is an important leg of the transportation triad, and we must give them the tools to do the job.
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