Magazine article The Christian Century

The Train I Ride

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Train I Ride

Article excerpt

The train I ride," Elvis sang, "is 16 coaches long." The train I ride, at least a dozen times a year, stretches four or five coaches long. It is Amtrak's Pere Marquette line between Chicago and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Travelers on the line are businesspeople, shoppers, baseball fans, family visitors, college students and-without fail--a goodly portion of Amish. Passengers nearly always fill the Pere Marquette, but, despite that, the line teeters annually in peril of elimination.

Americans are shortsighted about nothing so much as passenger trains. Sooner or later, and usually sooner, conversations about passenger trains and Amtrak in particular sputter with the dirty "sword": subsidies. For some, that word alone is a conversation-stopper. It is taken as self-evident that government subsidies should be eliminated, and Amtrak is a favorite target.

Such conversations forget (or intentionally neglect) the reality that all American means of transportation depend on "subsidies." Eisenhower's construction of the interstate highway system was one of the most monumental-and expensive--public works projects in history. Concrete and asphalt roadways require much more frequent and more costly maintenance than other forms of transportation. Such "user-fees" as gasoline taxes are far from coveting all these costs, and tax dollars make up the difference. Though it is comparatively inefficient and disproportionately polluting, America massively subsidizes automobile transportation.

Even walking, that most basic and independent means of transportation, depends on "subsidies" such as sidewalks, street crossings and park trails. And who really believes that nationwide air travel would be safer and more efficient without government coordination and regulation of air traffic control?

Admittedly, Amtrak makes an easy target. It is, as theologian Stephen Long has remarked, a creature of "state-sponsored monopoly capitalism," representing the worst of both the capitalist and the socialist worlds. Underfunded from its beginnings in the 1970s, it is a ramshackle affair of old equipment and heavy borrowing of lines built for and still favoring freight trains.

These encumbrances are largely responsible for the delays and even stoppages Amtrak riders endure. In one particularly infamous episode on the Pere Marquette, passengers delayed for an entire workday fled across snow-covered fields to meet friends and relatives who had received desperate cell-phone calls and waited along a nearby highway.

Think of a factory in which all machinery is owned, built and maintained by someone other than the business operating it and you begin to get a picture of the challenge Amtrak faces. …

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