Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Second Report from Washington

Our second day of meetings has been completed.

(A refresher: I'm in Washington attending a board of directors meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. This is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting a coordinated national passenger rail system in the U.S.)

Today we broke up into groups of three and four to visit various Members of Congress, urging support of passenger rail in general and Amtrak in particular. I must say that those members of Congress and the staff people we saw were most supportive. I'm especially grateftul and proud that our Hawaii delegation, representing the only state in the U.S. with no Amtrak service, has consistently voted in support of Amtrak. The two members we met with today -- Senator Dan Akaka and Rep. Neil Abercrombie -- are both staunchly pro-Amtrak and will support increased funding for our beleagured railroad.

As I have noted here in earlier posts, the Bush Administration has, for the past six years, proposed funding levels for Amtrak that would, if put into effect, cause the railroad to shut down. Fortunately, Congress has had the wisdon to provide adequate -- barely adequate -- funding in spite of the administration's efforts.

Here is just one example of how this penny pinching has put Amtrak into a truly deplorable situation:

In many areas of the country, and on many different trains, Amtrak is barely able to meet the demands of the traveling public. And, because of the skyrocketing gasoline prices, demand has been increasing week after week. But there are about 100 passenger cars sitting idle throughout the system because Amtrak doesn't have the money to perform routine maintenance or minor repairs to get those cars back into service. One of my NARP colleagues has computed that those idle cars could provide roughly 8,000 coach seats and 1500 beds ... A DAY!! Think of the additional passengers who could be served with those extra rail cars. And, almost as important, think of the additional revenue Amtrak could be making if those cars were added to the fleet and put into service.

Here's another mind-boggler for you: One of our speakers this morning was Congressman John Mica (R-Florida) who is a key member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He told us, among other things, that the federal government is going to spend five billion dolars -- that's billion, with a "B" -- to build one new runway for the Miami International Airport. Yes, I said "ONE new runway". Amtrak's funding request for a full year is one-third that amount.

It is -- I must tell you -- a frustrating and maddening situation. Fortunately, I do think there is a new awareness of the importance of rail transportation and of the benefits it brings to the country. Most of the Members of Congress now "get it." Bush and his people don't, won't and never will.

I leave Washington tomorrow, enroute to Chicago and grandly ensconced with a large contingent of felloe NARP directors in a private rail car that will be attached to the rear of Amtrak's Capital Limited. I will have an account of that trip, and the two that will immediately follow, in subsequent posts. Ah ... and photos, too.

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