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[Guest Blog] Advocate Proudly For Passenger Rail

April 21, 2021

By Paul Bendix, Rail Passengers Member, San Francisco

In an April New York Times column Margaret Renkl fondly recalled formative rail journeys in the South. When I recently wrote about long-haul Amtrak for the San Francisco Chronicle, scores of readers responded with anecdotes. People like rail travel. They flock to Amtrak’s national network, with virtually no advertising. This raises a question -- if trains are so popular, why don’t we have a robust and stable passenger rail system?

The usual answers range from the systemic to the political. But there’s another approach. What if rail supporters look within…and confront a strange paradox?

Ours is a consumer society. The customer is king, and sales of products and services speak for themselves. But when it comes to Amtrak’s national network, success is not good enough. In 2019 the Wall Street Journal explained that Amtrak CEO’s Richard Anderson faced opposition to eliminating “long-haul routes beloved by train buffs and their allies in Congress.”

As an enthusiastic rail passenger who barely knows an engine from a caboose, I bridled at the “train buff” canard. Then I thought, don’t waste energy reacting to this. When Anderson ran Delta Air Lines he would never have complained if passengers were airplane buffs. A ticket is a ticket, and revenue is revenue.

The real issue: why is the natural market for train travel so easily belittled.

Automakers spend billions suggesting that with a new SUV I’ll hurtle down mountain canyons rather than dropping off the dry cleaning. Amtrak spends virtually nothing to promote national trains yet manages to fill them. The consumer preference for rail is strong, needs no encouragement and we can trust it.

So, let’s enjoy scenic travel without apology. In California I can’t recall anyone objecting to Highway 120 which annually brings millions to Yosemite. The route offers spectacular turnouts, connects towns like Oakdale and Lodi, and no one is scrutinizing its profit and loss statement. Imagine, spending taxpayers’ money on something taxpayers enjoy.

Amtrak’s long-distance trains get people to more than 220 places and show them our fine country. They are easy to fill, cheap to operate. And they are a national treasure. From one perspective, they are also something of an embarrassment,reminding us of our woeful underinvestment in transportation. For now, let’s build the voter base for high-speed rail with today’s Amtrak, asking passengers to “enjoy this train…and imagine going three times faster.”

We have train-friendly leadership in Washington. Let’s make the most of it. Let’s advocate proudly.