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Torn Up Track

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The Height Of Stupidity; Pushing Amtrak Into Bankruptcy


By James Donahue

February 2005


When I was a child growing up in Michigan, we lived on a hill that looked down over a golf course. Just beyond the number one fairway the Pere Marquette Railroad track entered our community.


The train, driven by one the last of the old steam locomotives, came into our town every day at about 6 p.m., at about the time my father was getting home from his daily job and my mother was setting the table for dinner. We always knew it was coming when its whistle sounded as it was approaching the crossing where old US-25 twisted its way out of the city.


Most of the time I liked to watch the engine and its trail of cars rumble past from my bedroom window. In the summer months, when the days were fair, I often slipped out of the front door, followed a time-worn path down the hill, through a cluster of trees, and dashed between golfers across that fairway so I could be up close and wave at the engineer.


Those were the wonderful days of steam, when the engine, something in the nature of a moderate 2-5-2, always blew off excess steam as it was slowing. On one marvelous occasion, after riding my bike to the switchyard, the engineer recognized me, stopped his train, and offered me a ride in the cab of that engine.


Like any young boy of that era, I loved trains. I always had an active electric train set in my room. The walls of my bedroom were decorated with wallpaper depicting antique steam engines.


My interest in trains has never wavered. Except now, I see a need for a good railroad system in our country. And I have been appalled to think big business interests, the railroads, and our government leaders don’t seem to agree with me.


I believe the railroad has always been a solution to our need for mass transportation and shipping. Rather than clutter our roads with pollution generating cars and trucks we should have followed the example chosen for Europe and Japan . . . replacing the old railroad systems with new, high-speed trains and good track to handle the nation’s needs.


The decision to establish the Amtrak system seemed to be like a dream coming true when approved by Congress in 1977. It was late, but I perceived that America’s dream railroad was finally going to happen.


But instead of evolving into a new railroad system, Amtrak became a patched-up continuation of the old, without attracting enough business to ever generate interest in making it better. Over the years I have watched as the Amtrak system has cut more and more services, and communities have torn up more and more precious track.


Our railroads are quickly disappearing.


I never thought I would live to see the day when the magic would end.


At a time when the high cost of fuel and security are driving our airlines out of business, or forcing the cost of travel to such levels it will be available for only the rich, the Bush Administration this year offers a proposed budget that cuts federal subsidies for Amtrak from $1.2 billion to zero.


It seems that our government refuses to do anything to help promote, or build a good passenger system that people want to use. Instead, the emphasis is on personal automobiles and expensive gas-guzzling ATVs that not only add to the nation’s air pollution problem, but help the world race toward an energy crisis of disastrous magnitude.


It is clear that nobody in the Bush office has an eye on the total picture. The interest is narrowly focused on big business, the oil and automobile companies, and what is needed to assure today’s profits. It is not on the Earth, or the future needs of their children and grandchildren.


And the people of the United States seem to be following, like faithful sheep, right behind Mr. Bush.


Sales of ATVs are up, few are riding the railroad, and most Americans are ignoring the signs that our way of life is killing the Earth.


The intense weather conditions that are bringing destructive storms, killer quakes and other natural disasters haven’t put on any brakes.


As for me, I am overpowered by an intense feeling of sadness as I watch the dismantling of a once magnificent railroad system serving America. When it is gone, and all of the right-of-way converted to local ownership, it can never be brought back.

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