DAVID GUNN wishes he could be confused with Louis Gallois. Here in the United
States, Gunn, the new president of Amtrak, has emerged from his gloomy jousts
with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta with the impression that even if Amtrak
survives, it will be an indentured serf leaning on a scythe and gazing longingly
at the Ford Expedition rolling into the castle.
All Mineta gave Gunn was $100 million of a requested $200 million in emergency
loan guarantees. The money averts a July shutdown but runs out by summer's end,
leaving the White House and Congress to decide again what gruel to spoon out to
the scraggly serf.
The same lords of transportation confer knighthood on giant cars with billions
of dollars of silent subsidies in low gasoline taxes. The airlines are the court
jester. They make cattle pens seem like condos, teenagers seem fiscally responsible,
and Fenway security look like the CIA. The lords throw them a $15 billion tip
for their jokes.
Lord Mineta was kind enough to say, ''No wants to see Amtrak die,'' but it
is clear that severe dehydration is unworthy of his attention. Speaking of his
negotiations with the Bush administration, Gunn said, ''We listened to their ideas,
and, while I wouldn't say it was a dry hole, there wasn't a lot of water in it.''
In not-so-medieval France, the well overflows with wine, with passengers who
are figuratively quite tipsy. Gallois is the chairman of France's national rail
company, SNCF. A year ago France opened a high-speed rail line that goes from
Paris to Marseilles in three hours. The distance between that nation's two biggest
cities is virtually the same as the distance from Boston to Washington.
Imagine. Boston to Washington. Three hours. By train! No one in his right mind
would ever again drive eight to nine hours down the scenic and gastronomical nightmare
of the New Jersey Turnpike. For a lot of people, a comfortable three-hour train
trip from downtown to downtown, during which books can be read, laptops plugged
in, and people met would seem to beat showing your hooves at the X-ray machine
for the right to be herded into an arthritic cattle pen, zipping through the clouds
in an hour and a half merely to stand in line for a cab for the privilege of idling
in rush hour.
Given a legitimate choice, the French have decided it was no choice at all.
The service from Paris to Marseilles is averaging 1.5 million passengers a month,
dwarfing the 273,000 that used the Acela Express between Boston and Washington
Rail service now constitutes 61 percent of travel between Paris and Marseilles.
Trains also carry 60 percent of the passengers between Paris and London.
As a measure of how much travelers in the Northeast Corridor want trains, Amtrak's
New York-Washington run since the birth of the Acela has captured a similar 58
percent share of rail/air travelers even though it is no match for the French
service. In the same time the Acela goes from Washington to New York, the French
train would be approaching Boston.
Since the terrorist attacks, the Acela has helped Amtrak double its share of
rail/air passengers between Boston and New York to 38 percent. Any further improvement
requires new rails and ending the logjam with commuter trains in Connecticut.
That will take an investment on the level of the French, who subsidize their
trains at a cost of $3 billion to $4 billion a year. Based on population, the
same investment in the United States would be $20 billion. That is still less
than the $32 billion a year we lavish on highways, and it is not even half of
President Bush's proposed increase for the military.
Americans have chosen individual convenience, or the illusion of it, at the
cost of horrible rush-hour congestion and pollution. The French and other congested
European nations have chosen to understand that the benefits of having trains
that go 160 to 180 miles an hour far outweigh the costs.
Pierre-Bernard Fauverge, a spokesman for SNCF, said, ''Our trains work because
they are nationalized, not run for profit, but as a public service.''
Gallois, the president of SNCF, said, ''There is a feeling in France that SNCF
belongs to the nation.'' There is, of course, no such feeling for Amtrak. For
all his jousting, Gunn ended up with gruel.
As autos and airlines feast on the black holes of the White House and Congress,
Gunn stares into the well and can hear a resounding echo of emptiness. The well
might not be completely dry, but what is at the bottom is hardly not wine for
royalty. It is vinegar for the serfs.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company