Don’t derail Amtrak

In the first half of the 20th century, the Pennsylvania Railroad was the most heavily traveled railroad in the United States, and at one point it was the largest publicly traded corporation in the world.

Times have changed, but Pennsylvanians, including those in Altoona, still have a deep appreciation for the importance of passenger rail.

Indeed, a recent poll shows more than seven in 10 residents of Pennsylvania’s 9th Congressional District want to increase or maintain current levels of Amtrak funding.

These results are consistent with new opinion research across the country reflecting that Americans of all political stripes want more Amtrak service.

And they want it in more places than just the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor of Washington-New York-Boston. Amtrak ridership is at an all-time high, reaching 31.6 million passengers last year, thanks to increased use of routes throughout the country.

This includes six million riders on Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian, a five percent increase over 2011.

Elected leaders who hold Amtrak’s fate in their hands need to understand that conservatives and liberals alike say they want more train service. In Pennsylvania’s 9th Congressional District, where the vast majority of residents have not used Amtrak during the past two years, 75 percent of those polled have a favorable opinion of Amtrak.

These findings mirror the results of recent polls in states with relatively small ridership numbers, including Iowa, Indiana, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Kentucky. Even a quick look at these state surveys shows that support for Amtrak transcends blue state/red state divisions, offering a striking example of non-partisan pragmatism that elected leaders should embrace. Americans correctly understand that a well-financed, well-maintained passenger rail network is essential to an integrated national transportation system.

Passenger rail is also a major priority for those who care about the economy, which is why business leaders have joined the push to expand Amtrak. They know that long-term economic growth cannot happen without investing in our transportation infrastructure and that expanded passenger rail must be part of the picture.

Investment in Amtrak can serve another critical purpose and that is: greater safety for passengers. Rail safety has taken on more urgency in the wake of a deadly passenger train accident in Spain, and more recently, the crash of a freight train that killed 47 in Quebec. One of the most effective ways to increase safety is to require a minimum crew of two for all freight trains-a requirement that more than 80 percent of poll participants, which includes Altoona residents, support.

Pennsylvanians are right to believe that the world’s greatest economy cannot afford to have a second-rate passenger rail system. Amtrak is operating with infrastructure that was built in the middle of the last century and, in some cases, the late 19th century.

Yet Amtrak continues to break its own ridership records.

We need a vast, efficient Amtrak system across our nation, especially one that can accommodate the higher-speed rail that leisure and business passengers are demanding. And we need to fund it in a way that ensures good customer service, properly maintained cars and affordable fares.

This will only happen if those in Washington put aside ideology and listen to what a majority of Pennsylvanians, Americans, are saying: don’t derail Amtrak, fund it.

John Previsich is president of SMARTTransportation Division and Edward Wytkind is president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO.