In light of the recent train derailment outside of Philadelphia this past week, train travel has been thrust into a controversial spotlight. As a country, and particularly in the heavily populated and hard-working Northeast where train travel is a commuting necessity, we mourn the victims and the injured of Amtrak train 188. The people who rode the rails that fateful night were our friends, neighbors, family members, business partners, professors, and classmates. And anyone who has ever ridden the train to Union Station in Washington D.C. from New York or Boston has given heartfelt pause for a ride that is often taken for granted…because we too could have been sitting right next to them.
So taken for granted is train travel in the U.S. that members of Congress voted last week to decrease funds to our national railroad, Amtrak, rather than to increase it. Upon researching the reason for this, I was left with only one loud and clear answer: politicians don’t believe railroad travel is an important issue for their constituents.
This is our country. The best way to see it and the best, most environmentally viable 21st-century means of getting around it should be rail travel. The railroads built this country. They enabled the migration of people from east to west, the movement of U.S. mail for the purpose of business, the transportation of goods and ideas, the movement of commuters and ultimately the safe passage of travelers seeking adventure.
In the Northeast Corridor, rail traffic has increased drastically since 2001. We take for granted the trains that bring commuters to and from the business centers of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. Every time I’ve ridden the train to or from Union Station D.C., the line to board that train has snaked on a seemingly endless trail through the train station. These trains are packed and will continue to be. Are the railroad ties new? Are the bridges refitted? Are the train stations state-of-the-art? Perhaps our elected representatives should set out to find the answers to these questions and strengthen our infrastructure and leave an actual and tangible legacy for their countrymen and women.
Train travel, such a vital part of America’s past is destined to be America’s future. Our politicians need to be attentive to the needs of their constituents, not pander to the airline industry. They shouldn’t be running on a platform based on “going green” and then ignore the most environmentally-friendly form of short and long-distance travel, which also happens to be readily embraced by the rest of the world. Let Europe and Asia race ahead? Where’s your sense of innovation America? Rise to the occasion and solve the problem of moving our increasing population efficiently and safely across the rails.
We have Amtrak, the neglected middle child of transportation, which has likely been doing the best it can on our ultra-outdated infrastructure. It’s ageing. Yet to read the reports of Congressmen would make Amtrak seem like a luxury town car. Recent references by a congressman quoted in the New York Times that he refused to support a budget increase for Amtrak because it spent money on “luxury sleeper cars they can’t fill” fell short on my ears. I always have trouble getting a room in a sleeper to Florida, because they are so heavily booked. Same with trips to Chicago. Perhaps the Congressman would like to ride in coach for 21 hours straight? Or hop onto the top bunk in a roomette and see ‘luxury’ firsthand. Or likely he’ll prefer to hop on his chartered jet.
Like a flower, urged to bloom while picking off its petals one by one, Amtrak is doing its best to fulfill its promises with very little. The tragic derailment outside Philly was the first of its kind in 28 years. This record is likely due to one thing: the dedication of Amtrak staff. You will not find a more dedicated group of people in the field of transportation. Many of them were inspired to start working for Amtrak, and stay there, for their sheer love of trains. This is visible in all of their hard work on every journey, long or short. Derailments and accidents leading to loss of life are still quite rare on our nation’s railroads. More are likely due to people not riding the train, ending up on the tracks when they are not supposed to. Even minor accidents are few and far between.
Make it better. Don’t turn against the grand dame of American transportation. Instead…write your Representatives, your Senators, your President. Let them know that you are a constituent and you are mad as hell that we as a nation are failing to support the infrastructure needed to maintain the railroad: the gates, the switches, the roads, tracks, and bridges desperately needed to support our most viable and environmentally friendly system of transport for the new millennium. Ask them to take a train ride. Ask them to look out the window. Ask them to notice the beauty in the passing countryside, the bright lights of the cities, the homes that line the routes through our suburbs. Ask them to see the people that wave at each station and ask them to wave back. Wave back with a vote to support train travel. Because it matters to us.
Train travel matters to Americans. It is the great equalizer. You might just be sitting next to a student or a mother or a soldier or a businessperson or the Vice President of the United States.
We should vote to support train travel and railroad infrastructure. Only then can we begin a dialogue that pushes for high speed trains that match Europe and Asia.
Only then will the rest of the world race to catch up with us economically and environmentally.
Now that’s a platform to run on.
That’s a platform to board a train from.