On the right track

Published 12:19 pm Wednesday, November 26, 2008

By Staff
All aboard!
Passenger trains in the USA are making somewhat of a comeback after about 50 years of being ignored as a means of transportation across the nation. If the prices of tickets to fly across the nation continue to rise to sky-high levels and congestion on highways continues to increase, passenger trains may become an even more popular transportation choice for either commuting or traveling between cities that are more than 500 miles apart. That’s what a recent report by The Associated Press unveils.
Perhaps it is time to bring back the passenger-train option as a first-tier transportation choice.
For the past several decades, Amtrak has provided passenger-train service in the USA. That service is limited, not reaching most areas of the nation. Plus, Amtrak is run with government money. Its critics have accused it of being inefficient and wasteful. But for many people, Amtrak provides a more-affordable option of traveling great distances.
In a perfect world, passenger trains would either pay for themselves or go out of business. But in a world where the Big Three automobile manufacturers in the USA are seeking a bailout from the federal government, one should expect that some passenger-train providers would seek government subsidies.
Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told The Associated Press the public is way ahead of transportation policymakers in looking at trains as viable, attractive alternative to cars and planes.
He is on the right track. When it comes to passenger-train service, Europe is on the right track, too. The USA could learn a lesson or two about passenger-train service from Europeans.
Europe has a passenger-train system second to none. Passenger trains run all the time between cities scattered throughout Europe. In the USA, a relatively small number of people travel by rail except in the heavily traveled corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston, in parts of California and on routes that extend from Chicago.
Americans’ attitudes toward rail travel may be changing, according to the AP report.
After struggling for years to attract riders, Amtrak attracted a record 28.7 million passengers in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, an 11-percent increase over the previous fiscal year, according to the AP. The fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 was the sixth one in a row in which Amtrak saw its passenger count increase.
In April, the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Rail Division reported that ridership on the state-supported North Carolina’s Amtrak Service was up 20 percent in March when compared to ridership in March 2007. With the one-way fare between Raleigh and Greensboro as low as $11 and the one-way fare between Raleigh and Washington, D.C., as low as $43, it is understandable that ridership on Amtrak trains that North Carolina helps support is up.
With the increase in passenger-train ridership comes something else. DOT has helped or is helping several communities to build new train depots or restore existing historic train stations along the North Carolina Amtrak Service corridor.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has a good take on the return of passenger-train service in the USA. Rendell contends high gas prices and concerns about dependence on imported oil have made people more willing to invest in passenger rail.
The effort to bring back passenger-train service may end up being derailed, but it at least deserves a chance to get up a head of steam and head down the tracks.