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Derailing Amtrak

PRESIDENT BUSH wants to derail Amtrak by eliminating its operating subsidies. This is so outrageous that members of his own party are jumping off this train.

In the densely populated East, Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania called the gutting of Amtrak "unacceptable." Specter wants Amtrak to get $14.5 billion over the next five years. His website says, "My vision for the 21st century includes high-speed magnetic levitation trains capable of traveling at speeds of more than 300 miles per hour from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh with an estimated time of 2 hours, 7 minutes."

In giant and sparsely populated Montana, Republican Senator Conrad Burns has said, "With the distances we have to travel in our state, it is critical to keep as many options as possible for passengers and commerce in our rural area." In the Deep South, the mayor of Meridian, Miss., John Robert Smith, a Republican who served in the 1990s on the Amtrak board, has said, "We cannot have a Third World method of transportation."

Bush's proposed cut stands in stark contrast to recent rail news from around the world. Britain recorded 1.05 billion passengers in 2004, the highest number in 45 years. The government announced last week that it is looking into building a London-to-Scotland line that would travel at up to 225 miles per hour and slash a 400-mile trip down to 2 hours, 35 minutes. In American terms, such a train would allow similar trips between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Boston and Baltimore, Minneapolis and Chicago, or Charlotte and Washington, D.C.

In December, a new train slashed the travel time for the 177 miles between Berlin and Hamburg, the biggest cities in Germany, from two hours to 90 minutes. Such a train in the United States would allow similar trips between Seattle and Portland or Cleveland and Detroit. Germany's transport minister, Manfred Stolpe, said, "It'll be an important impetus for economic growth in both cities. Speeds like this are like flying at ground level."

That is on top of the already excellent and heavily subsidized rail in Western Europe and Japan. They see the future, and it is not an SUV. Besides the environmental perils of automobiles, the Stockholm Environmental Institute, an international research group, reported last summer that the explosion of air travel is one of the most serious future threats to local quality of life (noise) and a disproportionate contributor to global warming.

Even with its highly developed rail system, Europe is still a continent where 45 percent of flights are of distances less than 300 miles. The report recommended that governments develop strategies to shift short trips from air to rail and to develop enough commuter access to airports so that no more than 50 percent of air travelers arrive by automobile.

That study puts an interesting twist on news here at home. Bush's budget proposal includes $35 billion for highways, $14 billion for airports, and no operating subsidies for Amtrak. All Amtrak would get is $360 million to keep up some commuter services. This is despite the amazing fact that no matter how much Bush wants to kill Amtrak on the false premise that it must be self-sufficient (when airlines and automobile gasoline of course are not), people vote with their feet that they want rail. A record 25 million passengers took Amtrak trains last year. This was not just an East Coast commuter phenomenon. Ridership was up 14 percent in Iowa last year. Amtrak ridership is up 13 percent in car-crazy California.

At the same time Bush announced his budget, Delta Air Lines announced that it was ending the promise of rolling out a second plane on its shuttles between Boston, New York, and Washington when the first plane became full. For people who fly during rush hour, it means that people who fail to make a flight might as well have taken the train.

Delta's announcement, plus $2-a-gallon gasoline, ought to be the beginning of a better day. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta trashed Amtrak this week, saying the president will not fund a company that has "lost" $29 billion in subsidies over 34 years. That is not even $2 billion a year. Other nations do not see rail subsidies as a loss. They see them as an investment in civilized living.

Even if Congress untangles Bush's proposed derailment of Amtrak, which it usually does, it will be for a bare-bones rescue, with no funds for the long term. The United States will fall further and further behind in passenger rail. Other countries long ago boarded the express. Even Bush's fellow Republicans can see that. In 2002 John Robert Smith said, "We literally spend more collecting road kill off the nation's highways than we spend on the entire passenger rail system."

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is 

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