Sept. 3, 2005
OPINION: Ride the Rails, Folks
For the first time, Congress is giving serious consideration to subsidizing, to the tune of $1.4 billion over six years, nationwide passenger service, provided the states put in matching funds.
This funding "is a first-time-ever for passenger rail," says David Johnson, assistant director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. It is a welcome change of policy.
To be sure, these funds are a drop in the bucket compared with the hundreds of billions that have been spent building the Interstate highway system and subsidizing the airline industry that now find that its business model for operation is increasingly directing flights to the nearest cities with federal bankruptcy courts.
Historians looking back on the era of wholesale neglect of passenger rail service will wonder how the United States ever allowed a once workable rail system to scrape along just a handout or two from bankruptcy for so many decades.
Specifically for Ohio, it is contemplated that a web of passenger-train routes can be established, with Cleveland as a main hub and Toledo and Columbus as secondary hubs.
For the near-term future this would mean primarily spending money on identifying the right-of-way and security updates that would be needed to improve the present system. It is reasonable to expect that Ohio would have not have augmented east-west service as at present, but also north-south service in the Cleveland-Cincinnati corridor.
No, rail service is not coming to the wholesale aid of motorists in the near-term future. However, even an oil-oriented administration, fixated on pumping oil out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska -- a short-term fix if ever there was one -- should be able to see the wisdom of serious consideration of alternatives to private vehicles and air travel for many point-to-point trips.
Congress has always been somewhat more enlightened on the subject of rail travel, and it is time the White House got with the program, too.
Battle Creek, Michigan
Aug. 17, 2005
Schwarz ready to fight for Amtrak funding plan
Amtrak is a valuable mode of transportation and the government needs to fund it, said U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, R-Battle Creek.
Schwarz met with about 14 people Tuesday at the Amtrak terminal downtown. The 45-minute meeting was scheduled by members of the local chapter of the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers, the union that represents Amtrak employees.
Schwarz said he and other members of Congress from states where Amtrak provides service are working to ensure federal funding for the passenger rail service in both the short-term and the long-term. They are willing to fight the Bush administration, which doesn't consider passenger railways a high priority, he said.
"It is a legitimate function of government," he said, referring to subsidizing passenger rail service. "We need a long-term plan. That's what we are going to try to do."
Amtrak, created by Congress in 1971, relies on federal and state operating subsidies. President Bush included no such aid in his budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The U.S. House of Representatives is considering restoring aid to Amtrak.
One bill would continue funding levels for Amtrak in fiscal year 2006 at the same level as this fiscal year, but that's just a short-term approach, Schwarz said.
"We're buying ourselves some time and my hope is that by buying that time we can come up with a comprehensive plan for rail passenger travel in the United States," he said. "I mean it's absurd to think, first, that passenger travel in any industrialized country can support itself. It can't."
None of the countries in Europe that have advanced rail passenger services — nor Japan — have self-supporting services, he said.
"They have to be subsidized and those countries look at subsidizing rail passenger travel as a legitimate function of government, as do I," he said.
Tuesday's meeting was scheduled to publicly thank Schwarz for his support of railroads in Congress and for his role recently involving Amtrak funding, said A. Jay Howard, local chairman and legislative assistant with the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers.
Nationally, the union represents about 20,000 of Amtrak's employees, he said.
Other people who attended included retirees of Grand Trunk Railway and frequent Amtrak passengers.
"This was to show the congressman there is a considerable amount of support for Amtrak nationwide and locally," Howard said. "I thought it was very informative and very positive and we look forward to working with the congressman in the future."
Friends Glen Alday, of Bellevue, and Bruce Welcher, of Battle Creek, said they have no professional ties to Amtrak or railroads, but they attended the meeting because they often ride Amtrak trains on vacations with their families.
Welcher said he and his wife rode the passenger rail service in Norway and the trains were always on time. He thinks more government funding is needed to improve Amtrak service.
Ronald Dudas, of Battle Creek, retired from Grand Trunk and its parent company Canadian National Railway Co. in 1999 after 31 years. He said he feels safe riding Amtrak trains and he often uses the service.
"There's a lot of people in this country that don't fly. They can't fly. They can't drive, under doctor's orders," he said. "We should have more (Amtrak) service."
Schwarz recently helped Congress reject a proposed cut in Amtrak funding that would have led to cutbacks in rail service.
The restoration of $650 million to Amtrak's budget helped save passenger service in Michigan: the Wolverine Line along the Detroit-Chicago corridor, the Blue Water line to Port Huron and the Pere Marquette line that runs to Holland. Battle Creek is a stop on the Wolverine Line.
From 2003 to 2004, Battle Creek saw a 3.6 percent ridership increase, from 42,285 to 43,387 riders at its station downtown, and Albion's stop had a 13.9 percent ridership increase from 896 to 1,021.