PI Original Mose Buchele Friday August 8th, 2008, 12:54pm

How Far Has Amtrak Sunk? Look To The Lincoln Corridor

It's not surprising that a lot more attention is
being paid to Amtrak lately. High fuel costs have dominated the
national political discourse all summer, and here in Illinois the
Governor and the General Assembly are engaged in trench warfare over
the fate of a $25 ...


It's not surprising that a lot more attention is being paid to Amtrak lately. High fuel costs have dominated the national political discourse all summer, and here in Illinois the Governor and the General Assembly are engaged in trench warfare over the fate of a $25 billion capital improvement project. Now comes the Wall Street Journal with a report on the precarious situation of Amtrak nationwide. The article covers some well-trod territory, pointing out that ridership (up 13.9 percent in July from a year ago) has reached historic highs. But that popularity comes with a cost. Years of Republican funding cuts have deeply reduced Amtrak's ability to cope with high ridership, which brings us to the Lincoln Corridor. In a fantastic video report, the Journal holds up our very own Chicago-to-St. Louis line as an example of how bad things have become:

Years of dwindling budgets in Congress has lead to cutbacks in all parts of the system from the ragged chairs in coach to the maroon business class seats that looks like they were designed in the height of eighties, to the fleet of rundown ticket agencies like this one in saint Louis known as “amshack.” Amtrak is worse of all around. Unfortunately the futures of Amtrak rests on the dozens of corridors across the country that look more like the Lincoln corridor than the [East Coast] Acela express.

Beyond these superficial complaints, the Journal points out that the real problem is train delays. And the major reason for delays is the fact that Amtrak owns hardly any of its own rail lines. On the Lincoln Corridor, for example, the lines are owned by Union Pacific, Burlington Northern, and Canadian National. Freight companies don't have incentive to invest in high-quality track, resulting in slower travel.

It all sounds pretty grim, but as we've pointed out before, there is reason for hope. The Journal reports that the House and Senate have passed bills that could increase Amtrak funding by 33 percent or more in the new fiscal year. Our own Sen. Dick Durbin has introduced legislation to improve rail signals, rail quality and encourage construction of new train cars. On top of the that, the Illinois debate over infrastructure improvement has refocused the public's attention on Amtrak at home. As Dan Johnson-Weinberger writes at Illinoize:

A *real* capital investment for Illinois would involve getting to a reliable and consistent 2 hour trip from Chicago to Springfield and another 90 minutes to St. Louis. That's what we need. And the capital bill, whenever it happens, should fund a big chunk of that (the feds should pick up the rest).

We have a long way to go (with surely some more delays along the way), but it's encouraging that people are talking and our D.C. lawmakers are listening when it comes to improved rail travel. Watch the whole video here, it's worth it.

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