Monday, October 20, 2008

A new day for Amtrak

Last Thursday, President Bush signed the Rail Safety Improvement Act into law. The Amtrak reauthorization bill provides a framework for funding that, while requiring annual votes to actually provide, gives the National Passenger Rail Corporation the means to engage in mid-term capital planning that has been impossible since the last such bill expired six years ago.

It also marks the end of a campaign by the Bush administration to dismantle and privatize the passenger rail infrastructure across the United States, a plan that would almost certainly seen service vanish entirely from most parts of the country as happened when a similar plan was enacted in Mexico nearly two decades ago.

This is, then, a new day for Amtrak, which is seeing record ridership amidst surging fuel prices and a population of people increasingly more interested in how they spend their time than how much time they save. To twenty-first century Americans, the rush from place to place is slowly giving way to an ability to be "always on" by way of 3G cellular connectivity to voice and data networks. In such a world, traveling by rail--where one can both enjoy the scenery and use a laptop immediately after sitting down, without having to wait for the captain to say that it's okay or turning it off in preparation for landing--is more appealing than a decade ago.

Will this new romance with rail continue? It depends. Amtrak is underfunded and understaffed, but the people it does have are also often undertrained and less enthusiastic than their counterparts in other developed nations. The easiest and most striking difference is versus VIA Rail Canada, Amtrak's equivalent to the north, and Amtrak President Alex Kummant would do well to look to them for advice on how to build a world-class rail service. As for the first-class service offered on Acela, it's not bad, but it could be better. For that, Mr. Kummant might consult with Amtrak's partner in the skies, Continental Airlines, whose BusinessFirst service regularly wins awards from experts and passengers alike.

Amtrak's time is long overdue. Now, it has what it needs to demonstrate that those of us who kept the faith through the dark times were right, and that it can be what we need it to be. Let's hope that we aren't disappointed.

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