[As published By John Previsich And Edward Wytkind on AL.com]
By John Previsich, president of SMART – Transportation Division and Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO
Alabamians sure love their college football, but what we’ve just recently learned is that they also like their passenger trains — and they’re willing to pay for them. A recent state-wide poll by DFM Research shows that passenger trains don’t only thrive in the big cities on the corridor between Washington, D.C. and Boston – they are quite popular in the Heart of Dixie, too.
More than half of those polled in Alabama say they want to see an increase in the service provided by Amtrak, our national passenger railroad. When asked about expanding Amtrak’s once-daily passenger service through Alabama, nearly 85 percent support the idea of adding an additional route from Birmingham or Mobile to New Orleans or Atlanta. This poll shouldn’t surprise anyone given that others in Gulf Coast states are pushing aggressively to restart Amtrak servicelost after the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
The people of Alabama aren’t alone in their views. All across the country, in red states and blue, in rural counties and major metropolitan cities, Americans are calling for more passenger rail service — and it’s easy to see why. With 31 million passengers last year alone, Amtrak’s popularity has soared, and over the last decade, Amtrak has broken its ridership record almost annually. Here’s the best part: during a time when pollsters are churning out the views of voters on a daily basis, our national passenger railroad actually polls better than anyone auditioning for president.
All jokes aside, this begs one very important question — if Amtrak is so highly valued by the American people, why do we still have politicians in Washington trying to kill it? Yes, there was actually an amendment on floor of the House late last year to eliminate Amtrak’s funding and quite a few who serve in Alabama’s congressional delegation voted for it. To be clear, such a plan would bankrupt the railroad, strand riders in Alabama and across the country, and put thousands of middle class employees out of work. And think about this: while other nations such as China are racing toward launching 400 mile-per-hour train service, America is still electing politicians who want to abandon passenger rail entirely.
If people in Alabama knew this, we’re sure they would be asking why their politicians are not listening. Most voters in the state think any attempt to eliminate federal funding for Amtrak is a terrible idea. When told that Amtrak receives over $1 billion per year in federal support, 75 percent say they reject attempts to eliminate it and want funding to continue at current levels.
It seems people in Alabama understand what some in Congress do not: that rail transportation is vitally important to our nation’s economy. Long-term economic growth cannot happen without a greatly enhanced transportation infrastructure, and that includes expanding passenger rail services.
Supporting a healthy economy also involves making sure rail transportation is safe, so it’s no surprise that people in this state emphatically favor policies that do just that.
Like a super-majority of Americans polled across a wide swatch of our country, the people of Alabama believe that running 19,000-ton freight trains — many containing hazardous materials — with only one crew member is a bad idea. That’s why nearly 90 percent of residents support legislation mandating a minimum of two crew members on all freight trains. Since Amtrak shares tracks with freight trains in most parts of the country, the crew sizes used in freight operations will also affect the safety of passenger trains.
America can’t compete in a global economy without fully-funded national passenger rail service and modernized infrastructure to boot. That takes long-term investment by the federal government, in partnership with states and the private sector. We also need to make sure that our freight rail system, which provides the track for much of Amtrak’s service, is safe and adequately staffed.
Alabamians agree with people from California to Florida and most stops in between: our country needs modern and reliable rail transportation with the resources to pay for it and the federal rules to ensure its safety.