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Congress Should Treat Trains Like Planes
Published on Wednesday, October 10, 2001 in the Madison Capital Times
Congress Should Treat Trains Like Planes
by Dave Zweifel
I realize there are extenuating circumstances.

However, notice how quickly Congress was able to come up with an extra $15 billion to help bail the airline industry out of its difficulties, but can never find a few extra dollars to rebuild the passenger rail system in this country.

Fifteen billion, after all, would be enough to refurbish tracks and crossings to accommodate high-speed rail not only throughout the Midwest, but along several other transportation corridors.

Instead, Congress continues to insist that Amtrak figure out a way to make itself self-sufficient when it knows full well that the only way that's possible is to severely cut back - if not eliminate - service to many parts of the United States.

As a result, passenger rail is caught in a classic Catch 22. If it spends extra money on better service, marketing and new routes, it loses money in the short run. If it does nothing to enhance service, is forced to cut advertising and continues to operate on substandard tracks and railbeds, it loses passengers.

The double standard for the nation's transportation system is nothing new. Trillions of taxpayer dollars went to build the interstate, billions more went for airports, control towers and more roads leading to them. Trains, however, are expected to fare for themselves.

Not even the most ardent "free market" Republican blinked an eye after Sept. 11 while bailing out the airlines. No one asked whether that good, old American business management we so often hear about shouldn't have been just a little better prepared for a recession so it wouldn't go broke a couple of days after a tragedy. Funny, no one seemed to notice that one airline - Southwest - apparently had enough management acumen to weather the immediate slowdown and didn't even lay off workers. No one asked why the others were in such lousy financial shape.

Extra money for railroads to refurbish cars, rebuild stations, extend service and upgrade tracks for greater speed would soon attract riders and eventually enhance the cash flow.

So-called high-speed rail that served Madison, for example, would take passengers from here through downtown Milwaukee to downtown Chicago in about three hours, even with several stops along the way. And, remember, that's to downtown, not to some airfield far off in the suburbs.

It can be done. Congress can get the money. It just refuses to do it.

Copyright 2001 The Capital Times


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