Sunday, July 15, 2007

What Does It Take?

What does it take to make things right?

Somehow we got it right with Conrail. Conrail took over the bankrupt Northeastern freight railroads, including the stillborn Penn Centrail (which was something like trying to put two Siamese twins back together). Bless them, Amtrak took the passenger routes so Conrail didn't have that problem.

Conrail took a massive infusion of federal cash and eventually got a good result. Conrail pared down the route structure, kept what remained profitable, and eventually sold out to private enterprise - the best possible result.

Amtrak took an arguably large infusion of cash at the outset and has been taking federal cash both intravenously and by mouth in large doses ever since. Instead of paring, Amtrak cut to the bone. Instead of keeping what remained profitable, Amtrak was stuck with no profit at all - from day one.

We argue that another massive infusion of cash is the only hope, but it must come with conditions. No, those conditions should not be that Amtrak make a profit. It should be that Amtrak regroup. Think outside the box, keep what makes sense, establish a completely new route and schedule structure, and become what it is supposed to be: A National Passenger Rail Network.

It's too late to just take what still exists and work with it. With the possible exception of the Northeast Corridor (which actually should be a separate railroad), everything needs to be new, different, innovative, smart, inviting, efficient, and Twenty-First Century. Stations should not look like skid-row housing and passenger cars shouldn't look anything like the streamliners of the 1950s. Give us something new, and we think taxpayers will welcome it, pay for it, and use it. Leave the antique cars to the tourist railroads and to the rail cruise companies. (Let's face it, all current Amtrak cars are antiques.)

This won't and can't happen over night. The lead times on something like this are years, not months. So all of the funding doesn't have to come at once. But come it has to. Congress, please listen.

Given the dismal prospect of today's Amtrak (ugh!), air travel (groan!), bus (eyuuuch!), or driving (oh, crap!), most of us will say something new needs to come of this.

© 2007 - C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com
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