Here we go again. Having aimed in his State of the Union speech to end America's "addiction" to foreign oil, President Bush is now trying to shortchange one of the nation's best means of saving energy: rail.
As it has done every year since taking office, the Bush administration proposed steep cuts for Amtrak, the national passenger-rail service. For fiscal 2007, Bush proposed $900 million: about 30 percent less than Amtrak received this year, and less than 1 percent of total 2006 federal transportation outlay.
Believe it or not, this year's lowball opening bid from the White House is actually an improvement. Last year, Bush proposed zero dollars for Amtrak. Fortunately, though, Congress refused to go along, and restored funding to $1.31 billion: about the same amount Amtrak has been scraping by on for years.
These repeated attempts to shrink or kill Amtrak are off-track.
Critics like to portray Amtrak as a wasteful agency that sops up government subsidies. But the reality is that Amtrak is a veritable Little Engine That Could. The national passenger-rail system has managed to do a lot with a little throughout its 35 years of existence.
First, there is fuel efficiency. According to Department of Energy studies, trains use less energy for each mile a passenger travels than cars, and about half what airplanes use.
Second, it's ironic that Amtrak is under constant pressure to turn a profit when its competitors are not. No one thinks of highways in terms of profitability, and in recent years many of the largest airlines have been able to keep flying only because of bankruptcy protections.
Third, Amtrak has responded to criticism with positive changes. The railroad has rolled out improved on-board services, such as better dining options. Ridership has been steadily climbing, including on many of the cross-country routes that critics love to hate.
In fact, Amtrak's long-distance trains each carried an average of 356 passengers in 2005. That's because Amtrak reaches areas not served by airports, and offers choices to people who can't or won't fly or drive.
Critics should stop singling out Amtrak for criticism and recognize that the country needs to keep all its transportation options open: air, sea, road, and rail.
Other countries have already figured out what the Bush administration still needs to learn: If you provide high-quality, convenient rail service, it will be popular and well used.
Some of America's biggest competitors, such as Japan and countries in Europe, have embraced "bullet trains" and other major rail improvements. Their travelers and their economies have thus enjoyed good rail service for decades.
Israel is building a high-speed rail connection between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Mexico has opened bidding on a $12 billion project to build high-speed rail between its two largest cities. Even Canada, with long-distance routes rivaling those in the United States, has improved service and seen the benefits that come when good local rail service feeds into a national long-distance system.
If the president is truly serious about energy efficiency, he should stop trying to railroad Amtrak. Instead, we should think big. We should invest money and ingenuity in the high-quality passenger-rail service that our country deserves.
Christopher Ott is writer based in Madison, Wis., who has traveled by rail in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe and Asia. He wrote this for the Progressive Media Project.
© 2006, Published by The Providence Journal Co.