Citizens will determine the future of America's passenger train system
By Doug Ohlemeier, MOKS Rail newsletter editor
OMAHA, Neb. - The future of Amtrak remains not in Congress nor the White House- but in the hands of the people, said Alan Yorker, the president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers . Yorker addressed a group of 67 rail advocates at the Region X meeting April 6 in Omaha.
Yorker said the national debate rail advocates have long wanted is finally happening.
"Amtrak is up to the people. We will have a national rail passenger system and a better one," Yorker said.
Yorker announced that a private deal had been struck the evening of April 5 in Congress, agreed to by Sen. John McCain, for $1.2 billion required to keep the system running. The 30-day emergency discontinuance notices may still be possible, Yorker warned but said Amtrak President George Warrington told him he has no plans to make such an announcement.
"Those of us watching closely believe we will make it through this year," Yorker said. He said passenger rail will be written into Rail-21, the transportation reauthorization bill that will be rewritten next year.
"Passenger rail will no longer be a stepchild," Yorker said. "Passenger rail is not outmoded nor obsolete. For a healthy America, we need a healthy rail system. They can no longer dismiss us as nostalgia freaks."
Yorker said people visiting Europe and other places see the type of trains the rest of the industrialized world rides and ask themselves why can't they have such systems in America. The answer: Congress has not done its homework.
"Modern passenger trains are efficient and economically viable," Yorker said. "There's not a single transportation system in the world that's self-sufficient. Our sewers don't make any money. But how would you like to live without them?"
Yorker said NARP is getting the pro-passenger rail message "to every congressional office on Capitol Hill." Congressional staffers are requesting NARP to send them more information because they tell NARP they need to look more into passenger rail issues, he said.
"We're (NARP) a hot entity in Washington now."
Leading Amtrak critic, Sen. McCain, Yorker said, "is brain dead" and not respected on the Hill in passenger rail issues. "He will not learn and he does not want to read," Yorker said to a loud amount of applause. "He has been dismissed from the debate. No one is listening to McCain in this debate, including the president."
May 8th has been scheduled by NARP as a national advocacy day where NARP and rail advocates "will hit every congressional office to make sure the entire Congress learns of support for passenger rail."
A committee hearing is scheduled for Thursday, April 11.
"Now that Congress is listening, we will let the conservatives (such as Amtrak think tank critics) shoot themselves in the foot," Yorker said.
Amtrak has been a poor performer, Yorker said, through no fault of their own, but because it has been "bought on the cheap by the federal government."
Amtrak's 30-year survival has been an absolute miracle, Yorker said. "That only proves this country needs passenger rail."
NARP has just completed a draft of the Future of Passenger Rail report that explains how cutting the national system kills the trunk of the tree, Yorker said.
Michael Jackson, an undersecretary to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, Yorker said, is writing the Bush Administration's policy on rail transportation. He has stated $2.5 billion is the real cost to properly fund passenger rail.
"He has admitted the emperor is not wearing clothes," Yorker said.
Yorker thanked Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, Utah, South Dakota and Wyoming rail advocates, who comprise Region 10 and are served by only one Amtrak train, the California Zephyr.
"You're a forgotten region in many ways," Yorker said. "But you're the linchpin linking the two halves of the nation. Rail service here is just as important as in densely-populated corridors."
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