All Aboard for Amtrak?

  • The Akron multi-modal transportation center. It was built by the train tracks, but before it was completed, Amtrak pulled out of Akron. Now the only mode of transportation is the bus. (Photo by Julie Grant)

People who like the idea of passenger trains have been waiting for decades for the
federal government to get on board. Now, some think Congress might be ready to
get funding on track for Amtrak. Julie Grant reports:

Transcript

People who like the idea of passenger trains have been waiting for decades for the
federal government to get on board. Now, some think Congress might be ready to
get funding on track for Amtrak. Julie Grant reports:

A few years ago, I took the train from Akron, Ohio to visit my sister in Washington,
D.C. She still teases me about it. What would have taken less than 2 hours by
plane or 6 hours by car took 14 hours by train.

We got side-tracked a lot, waiting for freight trains to go by.

(sound of a train)

That passenger route I took has since been canceled. The trains that come through
now are only for freight.

Moving freight was the real reason most railroad companies started laying down
tracks in the 1800s.

Passenger trains were just a way of getting name recognition and brand loyalty with
the fat cats that owned the factories that needed to move freight. They were treated
well on the passenger trains, and everybody benefited from that great service.

By the 1920s, the government started investing a lot of money in highways.
The age of the auto moved ahead. Passenger trains became quaint.

Companies running trains started going bankrupt. By 1970, Congress voted to
create a national passenger rail line – Amtrak.

Ross Capon is president of the National Association of Rail Passengers. He was
already a leader in the passenger rail movement when the gas crisis in 1979 hit. He
thought gasoline shortages and high prices were going to give Amtrak the jump it
needed.

“When we had prominent cartoonists ridiculing the Carter administration for
discontinuing Amtrak trains, at the same time as gasoline was unavailable to many
people, I thought we were going to be in clover from then on. I was wrong.”

But when gas prices spiked last year, so did Amtrak ridership. Capon thinks, maybe
this time passenger rail will come into its own. Even though gas prices have
dropped, lots of people still want to ride the rails.

I’m visiting the brand new multi-modal transportation center in Akron. But so far, the
only mode of transportation is the bus.

Kirt Conrad is director of planning for the Metro Regional Transit Authority. He says
the center was built along the train tracks. But before it was even finished, Amtrak
pulled out of Akron.

Now if you want to go somewhere, you’ve got to take the bus. But over the past
year, Conrad says, the buses can barely keep up with all the new demand.

It’s like this in many cities across the country. People want to ride the rails – but
there’s no train.

In cities like Dallas and Phoenix, Conrad says trains have been successful.

“The ridership projections are surpassing what they had forecast. So i think the
experience is, you do build it and nationally they have come.”

Many states have been working with Amtrak to improve tracks. And, in some places,
trains go as fast as 120 miles an hour. Passenger rail supporters say for shorter
trips, say a couple of hundred miles or so, trains make a lot more sense than going
to the airport.

But analysts say if passenger rail is going to get on track it needs government
investment.

Conrad says passenger trains need better access to tracks – and better tracks – so
they can move past the slower freight trains.

But Ross Capon at the Rail Passenger Association says Congress is spending
almost all its transportation money on highways and airports.

“The federal government has, to put it crassly, bribed the states for years not to
spend money on rail. Look, we’ll give you 90% dollars on your highway projects,
80% dollars on your airport projects. But if you dare spend money on passenger
trains, youíre on your own buddy.”

But Capon thinks, maybe now, since Amtrak is more popular, Congress might be
ready to increase the amount of federal money it spends on passenger rail service.

Getting rail projects across the nation on the fast track.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

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