Friday, November 25, 2005

Choo Choo! – All Aboard the Stupid Idea Train!
by Eric Schmeltzer 11.15.05

Maybe it's not as sexy an issue as Iraq or Judge Alito (and yes, I promise that's the last time I refer to either as sexy), but one of the greatest outrages in the recent litany of outrages from the Bush administration happened last week. The Board of Amtrak, which is made up of a bunch of Bush shills, fired President and CEO David Gunn.

What a stupid idea.

All Gunn had done during his tenure at Amtrak was better organize and streamline the organization, allowing for Amtrak to start to run more efficiently, and increased ridership to record highs. And therein lies the problem -- President Bush and a number of corporate interests (*ahem* airlines) don't want Amtrak to run better. They want Amtrak run into the ground.

Exhibit A to back up this claim is that earlier this year, the White House proposed zero funding for the passenger rail service and in September the Board of Amtrak proposed breaking it up.

David Gunn had a problem with both of those actions, especially the latter, which was merely a rehashing of the Presidents ill-advised Amtrak "reform" package. And so the Chair of the Board of Directors, who had testified Gunn was doing a "splendid job" just a couple of months prior, fired him.

Congressman Jerry Nadler had it right when he said, "David Gunn knows how to run a railroad. He refuses to break up the system or give in to attempts by the Bush Administration, Amtrak opponents, and the Board to dismantle the railroad. His firing is a sign of the lengths Amtrak opponents will go to in order to eliminate passenger rail service in this country."

Let there be no doubt that spinning off the Northeast Corridor would end passenger rail service in this country by letting everything outside the northeast wither on the vine, while the Northeast Corridor will face the associated problems of privatization, namely that private rail freight operators don't want to lease the use of their rails to anyone and no private company will want to run a rail service unless the government guarantees it will cover their losses.

Yes, I know there is a lot going on out there today, but part of me wishes the grassroots would offer at least a whimper in defense of passenger rail. We should be expanding investment in rail, not trying to strangle it to death.

First, we need a strong and reliable rail service for national security reasons. Ask anyone in military or security, and they will tell you the key to national defense is redundancy, redundancy, redundancy. God forbid terrorists launch a massive attack greater than 9/11 that paralyzes the air industry for any length of time, or forces mass evacuations of a city, passenger rail will become absolutely essential in moving people in a safe and orderly manner.

Second, rail is far more environmentally friendly and energy efficient than auto or air travel. The more passengers we can take out of cars and planes and put on trains, the more we reduce harmful emissions that even FOX News is starting to admit cause global warming, and the more we save on spending on fuel.

Third, imagine the possibilities. We have spent less on Amtrak in 35 years than we spend on highways in one year. No one suggests "breaking up" the interstate system and selling it off to private companies to manage (well, save for the Libertarian party). We spend about $15 billion a year to help out the private airline industry, not to mention the multi-billion dollar bailouts that seem to happen once a decade. But no one suggests letting the airline industry die. Meanwhile, Amtrak gets about $1 billion a year. Amtrak has never been funded to the level that it should be to run at the high level it should.

But imagine if it did. Imagine if more frequent and more time efficient rail service was offered throughout the country. Imagine if we were to invest in high-speed rail that would be able to rival flight times in many cases. Imagine if a first class rail system was in place to help lessen our dependence on foreign oil, and reduce pollution.

David Gunn dared to imagine those things. And for that, he was fired. Where is the outrage?