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March 07, 2005

“Saving Amtrak”

The wind is howling, the snow’s blowing. As we endure another late-winter blizzard, I-95 is its usual mess. The airports are as good as closed, but I’m on my way to Boston with nary a worry. I’m riding the fastest train on the continent… Amtrak’s Acela. I can use my laptop and stay productive as we shoosh along at 125 mph. Or I can nap in the cellphone-free Quiet Car… something I’ve been lobbying Metro-North to adopt for years. I’ll arrive in Boston rested, probably too-well fed, and most likely on-time. Is there any better way to travel?

We along Connecticut’s “Gold Coast” are truly blessed, especially thanks to our ancestors’ foresight in building what is still a great railroad infrastructure. As challenged as Metro-North may be, Amtrak has got it right. But our inter-state travels are again being threatened by Washington’s threats to end Amtrak subsidies.

The Amtrak board of directors, dominated by Bush appointees, wants to force the railroad into bankruptcy, they say, “for its own good”. Their hope is that they can force Amtrak President David Gunn to finally spin-off the few money-making services in the heavily traveled Northeast and California to private ventures, and then shut down the money-losing long distance trains in the West. But, as in past funding crises, Gunn is holding his ground, arguing that the entire system should be expanded, not Balkanized. And he’s right.

Gunn is a crusty old railroad guy. I met him first when I was a reporter at NBC News and Gunn had just arrived in New York City to save the subways. And did he ever! His career included similar successes in Boston with the MBTA and DC’s Metro. During his tenure in NYC he and I lived in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn and rode the same subways to work. We’d often ride together and discuss his job. He was honest to a fault and earned the respect of both riders and politicians.

In fact, he was lured out of retirement in Canada to take on the Amtrak challenge, a thankless task. He has nothing to lose in keeping his hard-line stance against the White House. But we all have much to gain.

Amtrak subsidies are sizable. But no railroad can run at a profit these days, which is why Amtrak was created. If private enterprise could run a railroad, they’d be doing so. The question isn’t the subsidy but the public benefit it buys us all.

Imagine travel without Amtrak. You think I-95 is crowded now? Amtrak’s Northeast corridor carries more passengers than the shuttles. It runs in all weather. And with Acela, it’s luring business travelers back from the airports. Lose Amtrak and our airports will be jammed and the highways impassable.

The economies of Connecticut cities like Stamford, New Haven and even Hartford depend on Amtrak feeding passengers into its businesses, hotels and restaurants. Without Amtrak, would a SwissBank really want to be headquartered in Stamford or a Pfizer in New London?

OK… I’ll admit it. I’m a rail fan. A certifiable “foamer” (so named by the railroads because we rail fans foam at the mouth at the sight of a train). And I hate flying, though I do so often because of my work.

But I can think of no other means of transportation as reliable, affordable and convenient as rail. Visit any civilized country in the world and you’ll see rail as a vital component of public transit. Why not the US? Amtrak must be saved and, in fact, expanded. Even if you never ride Acela you benefit from its being there. So call your Congressman and Senators. Write the President and tell him we need the trains.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

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