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Derrick Z. Jackson

Getting on board with Amtrak's needs

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / May 19, 2008

RECENTLY in Indiana, Barack Obama had lunch with an Amtrak machinist who feared losing his job. Obama said, ‘‘The irony is, with the gas prices what they are, we should be expanding rail service.’’

Last week in Michigan, Obama spent time smoothing his relations with auto workers. A year ago, he told the Detroit Economic Club that the sport utility vehicle-addicted American industry ‘‘continued to reward failure’’ as foreign makers focused on fuel efficiency. Last week, he told workers, ‘‘We are taking steps in the right direction. American automakers are on the move. But we have to do more.’’

In trying to connect with white working-class voters, Obama inadvertently placed himself on the larger platform of American transportation. With Michigan being a swing state, we undoubtedly will be deluged with presidential pandering to the auto industry. Everyone knows that whatever Obama says about the US auto industry is subject to the obvious. American automakers are on the move all right, but to Washington to lobby against higher fuel efficiency. Any steps in the right direction have been baby steps.

High-speed rail could use some of this pampering and pandering. With regular gasoline approaching the $4 mark, and air travel becoming more frustrating than ever, more and more Americans are taking the train. According to news reports, Amtrak ridership — despite its chronic underfunding — is up 20 percent since October in North Carolina and up 19 percent between Chicago and St. Louis.

April ridership between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pa., was up 17.7 percent over April 2007. March ridership from Sacramento to San Francisco rose nearly 17 percent over 2007. The Heartland Flyer between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City is up 6.5 percent; the Chicago-to-Seattle Empire Builder is up 8.2 percent. Ridership in upstate New York at the end of 2007 was up 11 percent over the end of 2006.

And of course, there is the Boston-New York-Washington corridor where Acela ridership was up 20 percent in 2007, to 3.1 million passengers. Yet, at this moment, we have heard more about gimmicks like gas-tax holidays to make $4 gas seem a bit cheaper (Hillary Clinton and John McCain) and the auto industry being part of Obama’s $150 billion green economy investments and incentives (read: tax breaks). Yet, most of the developed world continues to laugh at us.

Trains now travel the 213 miles between London and Paris in two hours and 15 minutes. That is about the same distance as New York to Washington, yet our trains take 45 minutes longer. Many leaders on Capitol Hill are embarrassed by this, but President Bush has so thoroughly starved Amtrak in his two terms that Representative John Olver of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee dealing with transportation, said in February:

‘‘While I’m confident the president’s request is wholly inadequate to maintain a national intercity passenger rail system, I must also point out it will be extremely difficult to come up with all of the resources that Amtrak believes it will require from the federal government. Unfortunately, the president left us a number of holes to fill not only in passenger rail, but also with regard to funding for our airports and infrastructure, highway and transit systems.’’

It is obvious that the pressure will mount on Obama, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president, to bow to the interests of the auto and airline industries. In 2000 and 2004, two-thirds of campaign contributions from both those industries went to Republican causes, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the 2008 cycle, the Democrats are getting about half of the money from both industries.

It is one thing to meet with an Amtrak worker for a photo-op. It is another to get on board for the rail service America needs for a green economy, less urban congestion, and a more civilized future. Obama says, ‘‘Detroit won’t find a better partner than me in the White House.’’ In the past, that has also meant making a pariah out of Amtrak. Nothing would symbolize a break from this past more than a whistlestop tour in the presidential campaign, to promote trains themselves.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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