Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Great Train Robbery--Coming Soon

“Here I go again, crossing the country in coach trains.”
-Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Starting from San Francisco.”

If George W. Bush gets his way, tomorrow’s poets won’t have the benefit of Ferlinghetti’s rolling muse. And most of us who care about this form of transportation suspect that it’s not just the wonderful long-distance trains that the Bush Administration wants to snuff out, but all passenger train service. Because they couldn’t kill passenger trains through Congress--even a Republican Congress--the Bush loyalists appear willing to do, in the campaign parlance, “whatever it takes,” to make flying and driving our only transportation options.

David Gunn, who was president of Amtrak until November 9, when the Bush-appointed Amtrak Board of Directors fired him, put it bluntly to Railway Age Magazine: “They have to do a lot of dirty stuff this year, because next year is an election year, and what they’ve got in mind will be very unpopular.” Within the next few months," Gunn said, “there will be a lot of train-offs and other service cutbacks.”

Earlier this fall, the Amtrak board secretly voted to authorize the dismantling of the Amtrak system by selling off the Northeast Corridor. Such a move would have to be approved by Congress and all indications are that even this Congress will not go along.

While Bush loyalists speak the language of “Amtrak reform,” Gunn calls their bluff: “Anything they’ll tell you is bullshit… The Administration is serious about taking this place apart.”
Except in the Northeast Corridor, passenger trains do not seriously compete with the fly-drive culture. But so long as there are passenger trains running, it’s a reminder to the oilmen who dictate Bush's policies that perhaps there is a civilized alternative to fuel-guzzling jets and SUV‘s. They want to nip that possibility in the bud. Hence this backhanded attack.

And when they whine about Amtrak subsidies, they ignore the hundreds of billions “invested” in the airport-airways and highway systems--not all of it from user fees.

But perhaps it’s the very civilized nature of rail travel which offends the Bush administration. The possibility of sitting in your window seat and seeing an America not dominated by Wal-Marts and strip malls. Of riding the Capitol Limited, the quintessential Slow Train, out of Pittsburgh and into the Alleghenies, following the Monongehela, Youghiogheny, and Casselman rivers to the eastern divide, then down the Potomac through Cumberland, Maryland, stopping at Martinsburg, West Virginia, with its roundhouse, and Harpers Ferry (the armory John Brown captured can be seen from the train), past Point of Rocks and its high Victorian depot, and into Washington’s incomparable Union Station. You won’t see these views from the Interstate, or on a flyover.

“Who stole America?” writes Ferlinghetti at the end of his poem. “Myself I saw in the window reflected.” Perhaps, but I'm not convinced. Stealing America isn’t a single act. As the technocrats like to say, it’s a process. And what Amtrak chairman David Laney and his fellow Bush-appointed directors are trying to do is certainly a big part of the process.

Our only hope is a big backlash from Congress.


Peter said...

I hope there's a backlash. I remember reading soon after 9/11 that Germany has almost no "domestic" flights because of their excellent rail service. I wouldn't suggest that such a result is possible or desirable in the U.S., but it shows how strong rail service can be if the government subsidy playing field between air and rail is leveled.

roger said...

sigh...i love the train. we recently rode from tacoma to la and then back. the staff work hard to make up for lack of proper money support, and we had a nice trip, but the equipment is old and needs replacement.