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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Train Travel

Air Date: Week of September 28, 2001

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The terrorist attacks of September 11th are affecting more than our nation's airlines. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on how the train systems are coping, and how the federal government might step in to help.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Since the attacks of September 11th, air travel in the United States is off sharply, and many of those who took to the skies are now taking the train. Rail is booming and looking for money from Congress to help meet the new demand. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on what could be a shift in the nation's transportation policy.

[AMBIENT RAILROAD SOUNDS]

GREENBAUM: At Washington's Union Station passengers are lining up at Gate E. They're waiting to board the train to New York. Some of them are regulars, but many are new to the rails.

WOMAN: With the added security, therefore, it's National Airport being closed; it's just a lot faster to come by train, I think.

GREENBAUM: Others are simply nervous to fly. They're not sure when or if that will change. One man says the train, at least, feels safer.

MAN: If you can find any silver lining in this whole situation, it might be that this is helping Amtrak. I've heard the ridership is, in fact, up by something like 30, 35 percent.

GREENBAUM: That surge has leveled out, but still, across the country Amtrak is seeing a steady increase in ridership. Scott Leonard is president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. He says September 11th should be a wake-up call to take our entire transportation system more seriously. Think of it, he says, as a three-legged stool.

LEONARD: All other developed nations in the world have all three legs in place except for the United States. We have a third leg that's so small it makes the whole stool wobbly.

GREENBAUM: That third leg is the rail system. The nation's biggest carrier, Amtrak, has been losing money for years, and it's up against a Congressional deadline: show a profit by the end of 2002, or face possible liquidation. Leonard hopes the recent attacks might make some lawmakers realize how crucial the train system is. One Congressman who's paying attention is Amo Houghton. He's a Republican from New York State. Even before the attacks, he'd co-sponsored legislation to develop 12 high speed rail corridors throughout the nation. A bond sale by Amtrak would cover the $12 billion price tag. Now, says Houghton:

HOUGHTON: We started in a rather modest basis, but I think September 11th has turned the whole thing on its ear, and I think there are many opportunities even beyond what we've suggested.

GREENBAUM: Republic Don Young, of Alaska, has also introduced a bill. It would provide $71 billion toward developing high speed rail. Other lawmakers are saying money to develop the rail system might be part of the economic stimulus package they're working on now. Amtrak itself has asked for more than $3 billion to boost security and capacity on its trains--big money for a corporation whose budget last year was less than $250 million.

Houghton says his bill had Congressional support before the attacks. Now?

HOUGHTON: I think it's going to be an easy sell.

GREENBAUM: It's not just lawmakers on the Northeast Corridor who've spoken up for passenger rail expansion. Kay Bailey Hutchison is a Republican Senator from Texas.

HUTCHISON: Amtrak has been a stepchild and I think we can no longer afford to allow that to happen. And we have seen Amtrak step up to the plate in this air crisis, and I think we've shown that people will ride Amtrak if it's reliable. And I want to make it reliable all over the country.

GREENBAUM: But support is not unanimous. Congressional critics say Amtrak's been a perpetually disorganized money loser. Republican Senator John McCain, of Arizona, doubts that new funding will come easily.

McCAIN: Amtrak has no credibility with a lot of us, and that's something they're going to have to overcome.

GREENBAUM: But the debate about mismanagement of Amtrak is an old one. Today, like everything else, it will be about security, and lawmakers may have a hard time arguing against that. Alan Pisarski is a travel consultant. He worked for the Department of Transportation in the 1970s.

PISARSKI: Twenty or twenty five years ago, there was always a part of policy that was concerned with supporting military needs, national preparedness, national emergency planning, and I think over the years that had kind of faded.

GREENBAUM: Now, Pisarsky says, the old worries are back and the entire transportation system will be looked at in a different light, with a focus on redundancy and reliability rather than capacity. He thinks lawmakers probably will pay the rail system more attention and he says that may please urban planners and environmentalists, who've been trying for years to get more people onto trains. But Pisarsky says despite those efforts, the number of people driving cars has continued to grow, and he says the recent attacks may, in fact, accelerate that trend.

PISARSKY: Being in control of the vehicle yourself, having control over when it goes, where it goes, how it goes, I think is really going to be reemphasized and is going to be a strong, strong factor. As concerns grow about security, people are going to be shifting away from any large grouping, any large clustering, of populations. Whether it's in terminals, whether it's in large city centers. And I would expect that it would shift the focus more to a dispersal of both travel behavior and travel patterns.

GREENBAUM: It'll likely be months before any decisions are made about expanding the nation's rail system in the long term. Some lawmakers are urging the administration to put Amtrak's request for emergency funding on the fast track. So far, there's been no word on the $3 billion package from the Department of Transportation. For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, in Washington.

 

 

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