NCI Logo Open Letter to American Journalists

by Jim RePass
President & CEO

The National Corridors Initiative
http://www.nationalcorridors.org

Originally issued - February 4, 2002


Washington is the site of one of those classic battles we witness from time-to-time, when a major national issue is debated and, if we are lucky, resolved.

Unfortunately, it is an issue American journalists largely do not understand. Indeed, some would dispute the notion that this is an important issue, and dismiss it out of hand; and, as it will be debated in the shadow of Congressional investigations into the massive criminality of the Enron collapse, perhaps that view is understandable.

Yet we would assert that if we fail to address and resolve this matter, the consequences for our country will be as profound as failing to address the conditions that permitted an Enron, and with far greater long-term consequences than even that debacle. It is an issue at the core of our nation's economic and environmental health, and how we resolve it will determine our future in many ways.

I am speaking of the American passenger railroad system.

Yes, Amtrak.

Bear with me.

As you may already know, on February 1 (2002) Amtrak announced $285 million in cuts, and further announced that it would, as required by law, notify employees on long-distance routes that in about six months, those services, too, would be cut.

Amtrak's action was in response to a number of factors, but the most central of those is Congress' unwillingness - for some 30 years - to do more than fund under-financed individual trains routes sought by individual Congressmen. It is also anticipating a final report by the Congressionally-created Amtrak Reform Council, which will advocate breaking up Amtrak, and splitting off operations from infrastructure management, a move which would cripple the nation's ability to move people by rail just as a similar move wrecked Britain's rail system six years ago - and is now being repaired at enormous taxpayer expense.

As a former daily journalist who has kept up many old acquaintances, I am fully aware that most journalists, if they think of Amtrak or passenger rail at all, think of it as the last shaky vestige of a once-proud passenger railroad system. If Amtrak makes the news, it is to report a wreck, or as part of a nostalgia story about a "lost, golden era of railroading."

As a businessman, I am also aware that travel is more and more of a burden, and that no matter the travel mode, I seem to be spending more and more of my time in transit to and from, rather than doing, business. If you live in the Northeast, you may be aware that some startling new trainsets, the first in a generation, are speeding up and down the Northeast Corridor.

If you live on the West Coast or Chicago, you may have noticed that rail service is substantially improving, but if you live anywhere else, or simply don't take the train, more than likely you share the conventional wisdom about passenger rail: it's old, it barely works, we don't need it.

And that is wrong, wrong, and wrong.

For the better part of three generations - 90 years - a highly sophisticated and successful highway lobby has convinced Americans that the automobile is the only way to travel anything but the longest distances... and then, you fly.

The result has been a massive skewing of land use and development, so that the Levittown-suburb models, and variations on that post-World War II theme, have been the dominant residential choice of the 20th century. Simultaneously, the cities were drained of much of their tax-paying middle classes, and of much of their vitality.

These trends, and their consequences, are issues for another day, but the driver was transportation policy, and the result has been a degradation of the American city that threatens the very civilization which they spawned.

Civitas, after all, is the root Latin word for both "city" and "civilization." I want to make sure that every journalist thinks about that, because connecting the cities to each other, and to the suburbs, doesn't have to be a car-only phenomenon.

Flying between cities 100 to 500 miles apart just doesn't make sense, but in America, we have largely ignored rail as an option, except as an afterthought.

Lately, there has been a spate of stories about the Amtrak Reform Council, an advisory board created by Congress to analyze Amtrak and render an opinion on its future development. The ARC has been issuing a series of encyclicals lately, which will culminate in a report to Congress February 7. Then, Congress will be back where it started when it created the Reform Council: with the Amtrak ball squarely in its lap, once again... where, in fact, it belongs.

The sound and the fury accompanying the ARC's reports, and that which will issue from Capitol Hill when the Senate Commerce Committee begins its ARC-driven hearings, should not drown out the very real debate which needs to take place as America and its transportation system moves into the 21st Century.

If the news coverage is informed and solid, then the American people and their representatives in Congress will be able to understand, and act upon, the great opportunity that these hearings will present; but if we have the kind of shallow coverage Amtrak has largely had to date, the country will be in trouble.

Here is what every journalist needs to understand if Amtrak - and the country - are to turn this corner, and rail is to become a viable part of the nation's transportation system:

Amtrak is not the nation's subsidized transportation system, as it is invariably described in the opening paragraph of virtually every Amtrak story. That would be the highway system, which recovers a fraction of its costs through the gas-tax fueled Highway Trust Fund, and the airline system, which in its overall history has made no money, even with subsidies such as the FAA, which spends $5-6 billion in normal years. That and other subsidies have been rising, as well as the huge ($5 billion cash, $15 billion loan) airline bailout last September which, may I remind you, was for losses incurred before September 11.

In the budget, Amtrak got $521 million for an annual operating subsidy, the same as the year before.

Emergency funds for evacuation improvements to the New York City rail tunnels? Stalled in Congress...

Amtrak has never been awarded a steady source of capital, despite promises made 30 years ago when it was created out of the wreckage of the bankrupt freight railroads. Instead, it gets just enough money to operate certain routes and trains; usually those favored by a powerful Representative or Senator. Consequently, it has been nearly impossible for Amtrak to do any forward planning.

When Amtrak does get a chunk of money, we have seen great things. After more than 20 years of struggle, the Northeast Corridor was finally electrified to Boston, and new trains - the Acela Express - were purchased. The result has been a runaway success, despite basic rail infrastructure needs which have still not been met. Travel times between New York and Washington are well below three hours on a regular basis, and on the curvaceous Shore Line route between Boston-New York - one of the most beautiful routes in America, by the way, yet known to relatively few time is 3 hours and 22 minutes, and will head south of that when Connecticut gets around to a long-delayed repair project on the New Haven-Cos Cob section of the Northeast Corridor that it owns.

All over America, state legislators and governors, as well as business groups, are demanding rail as an alternative to strangled highways, as the realization dawns that adding still more lanes to the Interstate you widened five years ago will only make your cities' main streets and highways even more impassable than they already are. The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative is all set to go with the start of a phased 3,000-mile, nine-state high-speed rail system. California and the Pacific Northwest are already adding routes and trains and raising speeds; the Southeast, lead by 13 vociferous Chambers of Commerce, are demanding that the Northeast Corridor be extended and modernized southward from Washington, D.C. to Richmond, the Carolinas, Atlanta, and Florida. Gov. Jeb Bush has just signed an $82 million program to upgrade Amtrak service in that state.

The list goes on. The Downeaster, the new train from Boston to Portland, Maine that naysayers debunked as a nostalgia trip, had to add an extra coach after three weeks of service, demand was so high - and in the dead of winter, yet.

So why not just kill Amtrak and start over? After all, isn't it typically American to start with a clean slate? Doesn't Amtrak have, well, a lot of baggage, so to speak?

Well, yes, it does; but no, it wouldn't be a good idea to blow it up.

Over the years, many people have had the experience of riding Amtrak, and it can, indeed, be exciting. When you take a collapsed passenger rail system from the almost-collapsed freight railroads, hand it over to a new company, renege on promises of capital so that new equipment is almost impossible to buy, and then send trains out over 25,000 miles of other people's track (except for that portion of the Northeast Corridor Amtrak owns), fun things can happen.

And they have.

What amazes me is how, under impossible circumstances, Amtrak employees manage to pull it off, and keep smiling. Well, usually; but there is an even more basic reason why Amtrak, as a legal entity, must survive: the law creating Amtrak gave it the legal right to operate over the freight railroad's tracks, a concession which the bankrupt and near-bankrupt freights, with oodles of excess capacity, cheerfully made in 1970. They will never make that concession again, especially in today's post-mergers, capacity-constrained world. Any wipe-out of Amtrak to "clean-slate" the future will create a balkanized passenger rail system at a time when America more than ever needs a unified, functioning transportation network. It is not smart.

It is not necessary.

Over 30 years, Amtrak has proved that it can operate on next to no money. Now is not the time to punish it for its success. Journalists who cover this story have to become instant experts, as usual.

Call us or e-mail us at jprepass@nationalcorridors.org. I actually like and understand journalists, and I was and maybe still am a journalist, trained at The Washington Post and The St. Petersburg Times. Despite me, both are still reputable papers. Visit our website, www.nationalcorridors.org, and sign up for our no-cost weekly e-zine and newsletter, Destination: Freedom.

Whatever you may think, the national rail system is not about nostalgia. It's a great story, about a way of life, and a way of traveling that 70 to 80 percent of Americans in poll after poll say they want again, and which are poised to come roaring back to life in the only industrialized society in the world that was foolish enough to allow rail to languish.

Get aboard and hang on, because it's going to be one hell of a ride.


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