Published on Thursday, February 10, 2000 in the Boston Globe
A Celebration for Amtrak
by Jane Holtz Kay
The liftoff worked like clockwork - the clockwork of the old railroad terminals where the ponderous timepiece marked the hours with majestic precision. Yes, it seemed that long since a good word was heard for trains. Decades in the making, the upgrading and electrifying of Amtrak that stitches Boston and New York together in a four-hour trip was celebrated in a timely and lively fashion last week. The refurbished train was fine, and hopes to finish the job with the high-speed Acela train polishing off the route with a three-hour ride ran high.
Half a dozen marching bands, passenger cars filled with supporters, and rousing speeches launched the service. The recharged Amtrak staff threw streamers into the air and rolled them back again at six stops. At South Station, Back Bay, the new Route 128, and Providence stations; at New London (where the For Rent signs outside recorded the bad old days), New Haven, and New York the Amtrak flags flew. School kids played the marine anthem in cheerful dissonance along the way and bagpipers paraded before buoyant riders in Pennsylvania Station to end the day.
An upbeat day all right, but reading the reports later tallied a still more upbeat aftermath: Optimism for weaning us from highway hegemony. Nationally, Amtrak's success story struck a chord. In Washington, a North Carolina official quickly uttered the right buzzwords: ''We have been so bold as to rename the NEC (Northeast Corridor),'' said David King. ''We call it the ACC. That's the Atlantic Coast Corridor.'' Americans want to go up and down the coast from Maine to Florida. It's not a one-state business that we're about. It's got to be national.'' The Southerner was ''pleased at the progress Amtrak has made'' along the corridor. ''What really is missing,''said King, ''is adult federal money.''
Adult federal money, indeed. Let's hear it for serious, grownup funds; for an international attitude toward good transportation. Yes, indeed. Improved train service is not tiny toys for tiny tots. It is about creating a modern, efficient engine of mobility and accessibility; about the economics of building around America's city and town cores. With sprawl clogging roads, congestion stalling drivers, and bad service alienating flyers - it is rail that can get us out of these ills. It is trains (as speaker after speaker noted) that can stop lost luggage and lost hours on unreliable planes and crowded highways.
Michael Dukakis in trenchcoat in the trenches and firebrand Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, steering the Amtrak board, were still more optimistic. ''There's a new day ahead, my friends,'' said Dukakis. Connect the new service with the North-South rail link locally; join it with the Atlantic coast corridor nationally, and the rollercoaster rail has entered the 21st century at full tilt, said those on board.
But if Dukakis and Governor Cellucci signed on for the ride, along with the likes of New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci, and others, the state's political chiefs were noticeable for their absence. Mayor Menino and delegate leader, congressman Joe Moakley - they who oppose an enlarged Logan runway (a third of whose flyers are New York-bound) - and Senators Kerry and Kennedy didn't come to support the celebration or the cause. Nor was a single ombudsman dispatched to utter a word for the quartet.
Conflicts and earlier commitments for the day, say staffers. Busy. Busy. But what about commitment for the years to come? Where is the local political voice calling to end the rule of the road, to establish the North-South Rail Link or stamp a guaranteed seal of safety to keep South Station from tumbling to Texas developers?
To be sure, the refurbished Amtrak could use everything from the chic (streamlined moderne, say, instead of drab blue interiors) and the comfortable (airplane-like dividers between seats) to the serious (sustained service and maintenance). And yet, despite the fact that it looks like a shark (and its advertisements look like a sharkskin-suited salesman on speed), their forthcoming 150-mile-an-hour Acela is our best hope.
''Deficits have plagued Amtrak since it was founded in 1971,'' an article in The New York Times noted last week.
''Deficits?'' Amtrak's ''deficits'' of $571 millionare small change compared with the $27 billion in federal subsidies doled to cars for 2000), not to mention the rising bill for the Big Dig. Even with President Clinton's proposed new funds for intercity rail, that's small change.
No wonder rail alternatives are advancing nationwide. The Midwest inititative, the California connection. The Boston-Portland line. Five corridors, all told, says Dukakis. An Iron Interstate. Listen to such celebrants and you feel the trains surge. Rail-bred Boston and car-clogged Massachusetts could use that locomotive energy as sprawl and congestion consume our last-chance landscape.
If the Boston boys couldn't or wouldn't join the party, let the rest of us to get on board.
Jane Holtz Kay is the author of ''Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Get It Back'' and the recently updated ''Lost Boston.''
### © Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.