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Large majorities of the American public support more and better passenger train service. For example, a Harris poll in 2006 found that four times as many people want to see more travel by commuter train as opposed to more travel by car and nearly as many want to see more long-distance travel by train as well. Not long ago when Amtrak went from three to five daily roundtrips between St. Louis and Chicago, the ridership almost doubled.
Commentator Wendell Cox recently gloated over the cancellation of passenger rail service projects in Wisconsin and Ohio by newly elected governors. His commentary attacked rail passenger service, but without evidence apart from his interpretation of the recent election. His comments ignored many facts, such as the increasing efficiency of rail equipment as well as railís efficiency in land use, labor, and the ability to serve intermediate points.
Railroads donít have their infrastructure built and maintained by taxpayers the way air, road and even river modes of transport do. Two-track lines have been cut down to one track to save money. Sidings along the route allow trains to pass. Passenger service supposedly has priority, but guess what? Todayís longer freight trains often do not fit onto sidings. Lengthening the sidings is a no-brainer, and finally some of this happening. As a result, on-time performance of St. Louis to Kansas City trains recently rose from roughly 50% to over 90% on-time.
Politicians find money for what they perceive is necessary or wanted, whether itís for helping Pakistan or sending someone to Mars. A relatively small investment would do wonders for rail passenger infrastructure both conventional and high-speed. Yet Americans have no option but to fly or drive between so many of our cities. And, many smaller cities lack good air service and some have none at all, or if they do it is far too costly. Checking the price on American Airlines round-trip from St. Louis to Springfield, IL, I found that the airfares ranged from $572 for Economy Super Saver to $3,494 for Economy Flexible. By train the fares range from $26 to $74. It is no wonder that smaller cities and towns can serve their populations better if they have passenger train service. And, they can improve their local economies as they attract people who otherwise would never visit.
We must not forget that auto transportation is private, not public. I have to keep my car running and try hard to keep from falling asleep at the wheel, not to mention coping with bad drivers, bad weather, calls of nature especially as I age, and huge rigs that get longer and heavier as cars get smaller and lighter. Why wouldnít I prefer lounging in a good-sized seat on a train as I read a book or watch a movie, get up and move around, eat a meal, or take a snooze? And, I donít need to be frisked, scanned, shoehorned, or have someone rummage through my luggage looking for something to confiscate.
Wendell Cox also ignores the large and growing number of Americans that find it very difficult if not impossible to drive or fly, for whatever medical, financial, age-related, or other reasons. I wouldnít blame such people for considering the absence of passenger rail service to be a form of discrimination. Certainly the quality of their lives is lower than it would be in countries that recognize the advantages of rail passenger service for their people, their economy, and their status as nations preparing well for the future.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
James C. Pakala directs the Library at Covenant Theological Seminary in Creve Coeur. He holds three graduate degrees and serves or has served on the boards of the American Theological Library Association, the Missouri Library Association, the Missouri Library Network Corporation, the St. Louis Regional Library Network, and MOBIUS, a statewide consortium. He is a member of both the Midwest High Speed Rail Association and the National Association of Railroad Passengers. In 1975 he became an ordained clergyman in the Presbyterian Church in America and has served as a National Guard chaplain.