Save Amtrak

The Bush budget is full of cuts in some areas (urban housing) and growth in others (defense). One directly targeted service of the federal goverment is Amtrak. Via Tobin:

February 17, 2005

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN   FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

THE REAL TRUTH ABOUT AMTRAK

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has proposed no funding for
Amtrak in the 2006 Federal budget. While the Mineta plan suggests the
Bush Administration might provide some sort of 50/50 matching funds for
track maintenance, it explicitly rules out any operating support. The
states would have to fund any actual trains. This means there would be
no intercity train service in the United States, since there is little
chance the states can find funding to resume even a skeletal local
service.

Amtrak received total operating and capital support of $1.2 billion in
2004. By contrast, total U.S. highway spending in 2001 was $133
billion, of which over 40% was not recovered from gas taxes. This
highway figure continues to grow each year. No passenger rail service
or highway system anywhere in the world runs at a profit. Mr. Mineta
claims we “subsidize” Amtrak and “invest” in highways. The truth is we
invest in both. When has anyone of us received a dividend check from
our interstate highways?

Rail Travel Center has sold Amtrak travel and tours since 1982. We have
a unique perspective to evaluate the myths that surround Amtrak. The
truth about Amtrak is very different than that presented by Secretary
Mineta. The following is our analysis of the realities ignored by the
Administration in its effort to bankrupt Amtrak and shift all support
for passenger service directly to the states.

Amtrak’s national network carried over 25,000,000 passengers in 2004,
an all-time record. The long-distance trains produced the majority of
Amtrak’s passenger miles, 2.7 billion, compared to the Northeast
Corridor’s 1.7 billion. (A passenger-mile is one passenger traveling
one mile.) The national network is vital. Passengers must be able to
connect between trains to travel from one point to another, but Mr.
Mineta’s plan assures that, at best, only a few isolated local commuter
services would survive. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (Republican) of
Texas is correct that Amtrak must be national or it will be nothing!

Greyhound has canceled thousands of miles of rural bus lines, and the
Mineta budget compounds the problem by proposing to eliminate Federal
subsidies for air service to many smaller airports. Increasingly,
Amtrak is the only option in hundreds of cities!

Mineta speaks of “running trains nobody rides between cities nobody
wants to travel between”. This betrays his ignorance of how trains
work. For example, Amtrak’s EMPIRE BUILDER takes passengers not only
between Seattle and Chicago, but serves many cities and towns enroute.
This train stops at 38 other stations, including major centers like
Spokane and Minneapolis and what Mineta views as “nowhere” communities
like Wolf Point, MT, Glacier National Park, and Wenatchee, WA. This
train “nobody rides” carried 437,200 passengers in FY 2004. Most riders
traveled between the almost totally Amtrak-dependent small towns along
the route. There is no parallel bus service for 932 miles from Spokane,
WA to Minot, ND, a truth cynically ignored by Mineta, but very
important to towns whose only reliable link to the outside world is
this vital, well-used train!

The real truth about Amtrak is that due to lack of Federal capital
support, it lacks the equipment to meet the demand which already
exists. As a tour operator, we have to reserve on long-distance trains
a full eleven months before departure to assure space for a group.
Sources in Amtrak’s reservations staff advise us they turn away half
the requests they receive for sleeper space because of a lack of
equipment.

The Mineta plan is fundamentally flawed because it tries to shift the
burden of funding Amtrak to the states.  A route like the EMPIRE
BUILDER is the perfect example of the futility of the Mineta plan. This
train serves eight states, all of which would have to agree on a
formula to split costs, in addition to appropriating operating money
which they do not have.  If one state refused, the service would be
broken at that state border. Under the Mineta plan, there will be no
interstate rail services anywhere. We have a federal government in the
United States to address issues that cross state lines, and Amtrak is a
classic example. The ultimate truth about Amtrak is that it is
remarkably well-used, vital to the real America of small towns and
inland cities, and needs national support!

Carl H. Fowler

About the author: Carl Fowler is Vice-President/General Manager of Rail
Travel Center. He has worked full-time promoting travel on Amtrak and
other railways since November 1982. Mr. Fowler served for over a decade
on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Railroad
Passengers and was a member of Amtrak’s Travel Agency Computer Advisory
Committee. He has addressed the National Press Club on Amtrak and train
travel and has ridden over 350,000 miles by train. Rail Travel Center
is located in Putney, Vermont. Its web site is www.railtravelcenter.com.

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