Tracking Down Better US Train Service
We are writing in regard to your editorial "Getting Amtrak on Track" (June 19). We applaud the interest that you show in intercity rail travel. A few points of clarification:
* Your editorial says the trains typically peak out at "about 79 miles per hour." But note that Amtrak runs its Metroliners at 120 m.p.h. between Washington and New York.
* Other forms of transport are heavily subsidized. Highways and airports are government-built and funded facilities. Amtrak subsidies have been cut back; they have not increased over the last few years.
* Europe and Japan have modern and advanced rail systems because their governments made positive commitments to fund passenger rail travel.
For US rail travel, Amtrak is the only game in town (and it was the only mode of transport functioning during the April 1 blizzard in the Northeast). If we dismantle it, it may not be replaced. We can't afford to run that risk.
William S. Edwards
Dorothea E. Rees
Dependable service, at 80 miles an hour, with convenient connections and provision for commercial transportation at the destination, for a cost comparable or somewhat more than airfare, would make Amtrak a first choice for a major market segment.
But here are some problems I have experienced with Amtrak: I used to live in Lincoln, Ill., work in Springfield, and travel to Chicago for meetings. The station was within walking distance of my home.
But, I could never depend on an arrival time. The train would pull off on a sidetrack and just sit there. On one return trip, we sat on a side track about halfway between Chicago and Lincoln for over an hour. The frustration was compounded by not knowing why, or how much longer we would be delayed. In all of the delays I experienced on those trips, we passengers never were given any information. And my experiences were better than those of some of my co-workers.
More recently, I lived in Baton Rouge, La. Family members would have liked to take the train to visit us, but the closest station was in Hammond, far too inconvenient. It was more convenient (and cheaper) for them to fly into Baton Rouge.
Currently, I live in Des Moines, a major Midwest destination; it has an international airport. But the Amtrak station is in Osceola, over 40 miles from the downtown center.
Making the trains super fast but still letting people out in a remote location and leaving them on their own to figure out transportation for the final stage of the journey will not increase the customer base. As an environmentalist, I very much want our population to begin to choose mass transportation. I think the barriers to that choice are not train speed, but delays, lack of service to population centers, and lack of provision for connecting to shuttles and rental-car access.
Your editorial misses several important points about why the European and American railroad systems are substantially different.
* Europe's cities were fortresses and centers of population before the railroads were built. This is a historic and important difference because many US cities were built as a result of the railroads.
* The distances in the US are substantially greater.
* Much of the US transportation system is based upon the automobile because of historic reasons tied to the dominance of the US oil industry and its political impact.
* The service in the US is lousy because the track is in lousy shape.
* Congress has not seen fit to adequately fund the railroads infrastructure in the same manner it has funded the highway system.
I could go on, but the important point is that part of the reason that the European rail systems work is that the automobile came later and wasn't subsidized as heavily as it was here.
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