Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Last Train From Austerity Point

As winter's long train keeps blasting through our northern office locations, the bitterly cold air has kept that portion of our staff indoors, working, and often listening to news and discussions on the radio.

One of the stories that stuck out last week, that the cable "news" channels seemed to pass right by, was a story on NPR, about how Amtrak passenger rail service in the U.S. is currently having to fight to use our nation's rail lines, thanks to both coal and oil companies hogging up the available space on the rails.

Maybe it's because some of our staff members have literally ridden trains from coast-to-coast across America, and we often ride the commuter trains near our Washington, DC offices. Maybe it's because we've also ridden trains across Europe, and have seen how large-scale, high speed rail can work well. What we are certain of, after looking into the story that NPR reported last week, is that America doesn't have enough rail lines - a problem President Obama has been attempting to remedy since the Recovery Act, enacted during his first year of office.

As of December, the Obama Administration, through efforts within the Congress, has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in expanding capabilities for rail lines. Investments from adding secondary spur tracks, to retrofitting or replacing bridges, have improved America's rail system significantly over the past five years - especially in areas like the Northeast corridor, where some high-speed passenger rail projects remain on schedule.

Unfortunately, outside of that Northeast corridor, the benefits of President Obama's push for investment have gone almost entirely to freight companies. Meanwhile, passengers across the U.S. have effectively been left sitting in their chairs at stations, playing "train," while they wait for the backlog of freight and oil trains to get off the tracks.

The traffic jam of oil trains in the U.S., especially in the North Dakota and Minnesota regions, have begun to seriously hurt passenger traffic routes. As we'd heard on NPR last week, both vacation destinations, like Woodland Resort, as well as overnight cross-country passenger routes have been the primary victims of the rail-bound oil boom.

Passenger trains haven't been the only victims of this limited resource problem though.

Major business interests, like American Crystal Sugar, have also had to severely curtail production due to the lack of sufficient open rail space, costing the company millions. These delays are massive and unprecedented over the last forty years, and for a company like American Crystal Sugar, using alternate transportation methods like semi-trailers simply isn't a comparable substitute for rail lines.

The National Association of Railroad Passengers has also been pushing Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to get off his backside and reassert the rules of rails, that give passenger trains priority over oil and freight trains.

One fact has become clear to us once again though, in researching this story. No matter how many taxpayer dollars and even private dollars that have gone into upgrades and repairs over the last few years, America's passenger rail system - outside the Northeast corridor - doesn't currently even rate being called "third world."

For all those Republicans in Congress who've poked fun at the idea America needs to heavily invest once again in infrastructure issues like America's rail system? We invite them to take the train and meet us somewhere in middle America, like Woodland Resort.

We'd advise they should expect a few hours of sitting in the station "playing train" and doing nothing first - something many in Congress from both parties have already proven they're experts at.