The federal government of Germany is planning to spend about $70 billion on
its already first-class railroad system during the next 10 years.
Here in the United States we have spent approximately $22 billion on Amtrak
since it was organized some 29 years ago.
Despite stark contrasts like that, all too many members of Congress still
have the audacity to complain that we're spending too much on passenger rail.
Amtrak ought to pay its own way, they insist.
Frankly, if we'd put a few more dollars into our national railroad passenger
system, it might just stand a good chance of paying its own way.
As it is, Amtrak has done a commendable job of narrowing the gap between
revenues and expenses. But it's caught in a classic Catch-22 that Congress
refuses to solve.
In its effort to cut expenses, passenger amenities suffer. Food service is
scaled back. There aren't as many porters and other service people to take care
of passenger needs. Engines and cars are kept in service longer, delaying
maintenance. That leads to breakdowns and late trains.
All that turns off prospective passengers, and that, in turn, cuts into the
revenue line on the other side of the ledger.
By nickel and diming the system, Amtrak can't expand or upgrade its service.
The time has come to do something about it.
Our own Gov. Tommy Thompson, who serves as Amtrak's chairman, has been
pushing Congress and the states to fund enough improvements so that the trains
in the Midwest, at least, can run from 110 to 150 mph. That alone would be a
major step in attracting travelers.
Under Thompson's plan, high-speed rail would go from Chicago to Milwaukee to
Madison to Minneapolis.
Fast trains could compete with airlines and even the automobile. How much
more convenient, for example, would it be for Madisonians to hop on an Amtrak in
downtown Madison and arrive in downtown Chicago less than three hours later?
Amtrak also has to have the financial freedom to upgrade service --
everything from the dining cars to snack bars in the lounge cars.
If we dedicate just a fraction of the resources to rail that we currently
spend on more and wider concrete highways, this country could make its rail
system a viable and fun alternative again.
And if we don't?
Then we better get used to more gridlock on the already clogged interstates,
even more serious air pollution in our cities and highway building costs that
make today's upgrading of the Amtrak system look like pocket change.