It may not have felt that way when you were stuck in traffic on the way to work this morning, but Americans love trains. Maybe not everyone, but millions of us do. I notice it on the blogs, where you can see the conversation perks up when someone posts about commuter trains or light rail. And with $4 gas, you see it in the packed cars every rush hour, especially in cities with an entrenched rail network like Philly, and you even see places in Sunbelt Car Heaven like Houston scrambling to add light rail.
Given all that, why do so many of our politicians still hate trains. Including John McCain.
Two stories this week have really driven the issue home. First there was this piece in the New York Times:
Today Amtrak has 632 usable rail cars, and dozens more are worn out or damaged but could be reconditioned and put into service at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars each.
And it needs to buy new rail cars soon. Its Amfleet cars, the ones recognizable to riders as the old Metroliners, are more than 30 years old. And the Acela trains, which have been operating about eight years, have about a million miles on them.
Writing specifications for bids, picking a vendor and waiting for delivery takes years, even if the money is in hand.
Today, the Inquirer tells us how bad Amtrak's infrastructure has been neglected:
Several blocks away, at 52d and Jefferson Streets, three massive steel bridges that carry dozens of Amtrak and SEPTA trains every day are slowly deteriorating. Skillet-sized sheets of rust are flaking off, and daylight is visible through some side plates.
Throughout the Philadelphia region and much of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is struggling to maintain old bridges, tunnels, retaining walls and other infrastructure. Chronically short of money, Amtrak has put off an estimated $5 billion in needed repairs and upgrades nationwide, and most of that is along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington.
Everyone in both parties at least pays lip service now to ending our "addiction to oil," and while there's nothing wrong with giving "Back to the Future"s Doc Brown $300 million for his retooled DeLorean, buying new rail cars and making sure that Amtrak doesn't crumble is something we know we can do right now, and get real results. That seems obvious -- but not to John McCain:
Amtrak’s fortunes also hinge on who wins the White House; Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, was a staunch opponent of subsidies to Amtrak when he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Barack Obama, the probable Democratic nominee, was a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill to provide an 80/20 financing match.
McCain's longstanding jihad against Amtrak is no secret -- except maybe to voters in the 2008 election. I was just searching around and found only a couple of recent articles, mostly in obscure places or in the British media, that mention the Republican's positions against funding rail. In fact, I'm a little surprised that the Obama campaign hasn't spotlighted this issue in Pennsylvania, since Amtrak has higher ridership here than anywhere else.
But these are the stakes. If you envision a future with commuters out of their SUVs and off the Schuylkill Expressway and onto rail cars, you're probably not picturing the McCain administration.