The day Amtrak opened in 1972, it was already financially hindered. The government-funded corporation could not get enough equipment or funds to operate every track and could not find managers with enough experience to be effective leaders. Amtrak survived, but only after cutting much of its service and limiting most travel to specialty trains in the Northeast.
The commuters and vacationers of the 21st century are paying the price of a poor financial legacy that started more than 50 years ago. For half a century, America, the economic and technological power of the world, has been alone among industrialized nations in lacking an efficient, well-priced rail system.
The consequences can be seen on the Schuylkill Expressway, when traffic comes to a standstill for miles, or along city streets with double-parked cars abound. Environmental damage is also great. Gallons of gasoline are burned in every commuting car, every day, year after year.
Gasoline being used up like this also has political implications. The reliance of Americans on foreign oil, especially oil from Middle Eastern nations, is at the heart of many international disputes. Some would list Iraqi oil reserves as a reason for American occupation of the country.
For these reasons and simply for more options when traveling, Americans should demand a working rail system.
Because Philadelphia is in the center of the Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor Line spanning from Boston to Washington, D.C., it is the second busiest station in the nation. Every year, more than 3.5 million passengers come through 30th Street Station, according to Amtrak. Some pass straight through on their way to New York or Washington, but many are coming to Philadelphia because of work, school or recreation.
The demand for rail is proportional to the cost of gasoline and the congestion on roads. When commuters purchase gallon after gallon of gasoline, priced around $1.60, they begin to consider commuting via rail.
Amtrak already services many suburban areas in New Jersey and in areas west of Philadelphia. The fact that SEPTA can move commuters around the city after arriving from Amtrak trains makes car-less commutes more appealing.
Amtrak and SEPTA could work efficiently and meet the demands of commuters, but currently they do not.
The relationship between Amtrak and SEPTA is in no way conducive to effective cooperation. Amtrak employees have expressed their disgust with SEPTA; calling the system “a joke.”
To paraphrase the accusations: SEPTA takes old trains, refurbishes them, and expects them to run like new. SEPTA then puts millions of dollars into a new station in North Philadelphia and cuts train service there to the point where it is hardly used.
Ironically, Amtrak has no room to complain. They charge high rates, are inefficient (12 hour train ride to upstate New York, anyone?), and are still in financial trouble.
However, Amtrak and SEPTA are better than nothing. Imagine 300 subway trainloads of commuters, driving cars. Imagine numerous Amtrak trains full of interstate commuters parking in Philadelphia.
The only way to solve the problems these companies have is by supporting them with public funds. Take 10 percent of a multi-billion dollar defense budget and put some of it into a rail system that will help ease the need to go to war in the first place. Pumping money into these companies means well-educated, efficient management will be attracted and improvements will be made.
The American public is willing to support the government projects with a direct benefit to society. In Philadelphia, there is an infrastructure in place. All it takes now is increased funds and more public debate and pressure. Rail systems should not be slowly phased out. They should be central to future transportation policy in America.
Silas Chamberlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.