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Just think... Long distance trains are more than for tourists

By VICTORIA STOPPIELLO

Observer columnist

Published on April 18, 2017 3:11PM

Columnist Victoria Stoppiello, living it up on Amtrak — coffee all day!

ANTHONY STOPPIELLO PHOTO

Columnist Victoria Stoppiello, living it up on Amtrak — coffee all day!


In a couple weeks my husband and I will be taking the train to Santa Fe New Mexico. When I say the train, I should say we’re taking “a hotel on rails.”We leave Portland one afternoon, spend that night, the following day and night and arrive in Lamy, a town just south of Santa Fe on the third day. During the trip we’ll have a small compartment that turns into two beds at night and have all our meals in the dining car. For us, it’s an extension of our vacation.

We also enjoy train travel because it’s allowed us to meet so many people from around the world and across the US. It has given us a real sense of what the “flyover” parts of this country are like — the landscape and the people. So it was with irony that I read last weekend that President Trump proposes to eliminate all of Amtrak’s long-haul routes in his transportation budget proposal.

Amtrak is a lifeline for people who live in communities in America’s heartland. Many people who work in the Bakken oil fields near Williston, North Dakota, use Amtrak to get to and from work; when they go home for the weekend to their families in eastern Montana, they take the train. I know this because of being in the café car on the Empire Builder when the bartender went out of her way to wake up oil field workers when their station approached. She said so often they are so tired that they use the four to six hour train trip to catch up on their sleep.

Amtrak covered 94 percent of its operating costs through ticket and other revenue last year. Its operating loss of $227 million (much of it attributable to long-distance trains) was covered by federal subsidy — a drop in the bucket for the federal budget. Mr. Trump wants to shut down the Empire Builder, as well as the Southwest Chief, the Texas Eagle and the Coast Starlight. He either isn’t noticing or doesn’t care that these trains support rural parts of America, the part that has felt neglected.

On one train trip we met a family from western Minnesota who was going to Chicago to attend a celebration. They couldn’t afford to fly from their little town to Chicago because it meant three connecting flights; with two children and two adults, the cost was exorbitant.

Mr. Trump suggests that long distance trains serving roughly 220 rural communities (including Centralia, Spokane and Bingen) be eliminated, and instead budget funding for NASA to develop supersonic jets to connect major cities on the East and West coasts. Contrary to his campaign promises, he is catering to those who have the wealth to get on a supersonic jet, and ignoring his political base. Or is this just another distraction? He also proposes privatizing air traffic control and removing subsidies from rural airports.

Just as Mr. Trump is suggesting cuts to train service, people turned out in droves to cheer as an Amtrak train ran between New Orleans, Louisiana and Tallahassee, Florida for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. This test run was to establish whether the tracks were now sufficiently stable to handle passenger service.

The vast majority of train usage is on the eastern seaboard between Washington, D.C. and Boston, runs that Mr. Trump plans to keep, according to USA Today, because they more than pay for themselves. The Northeast, like Europe, is densely populated, making train and all other public transportation more financially efficient due to economies of scale.

But not everything needs to be based on economies of scale. There are things that provide a broader social good. Whether talking to families from the upper Midwest or to Bakken oil field workers, I get the sense that long-distance trains are not a luxury, but a necessity. Communicate with your members of Congress because these cuts will impact everyone, especially small towns along the routes.

Dear readers, This is my last “Just Think” column for the foreseeable future. After more than 20 years of writing for the Observer, I’m taking a break. Editor Matt Winters has been wonderfully supportive, and publishing “This Side of Sand Island,” based on my Ilwaco-related columns, was a dream fulfilled. “You can be a writer your whole life, but you’re not an author until you publish a book.” You can reach me at anthonyvictoria1@gmail.com.



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