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Local View: Amtrak faces death by a thousand cuts

Local View: Amtrak faces death by a thousand cuts

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When combat was conducted with swordplay prior to the use of firearms, two closely matched opponents engaged in a fight. One was slightly more skillful than the other, and, though he couldn't strike a fatal blow, he managed to inflict a number of minor cuts on his opponent as the fight went on.

He was surprised when his opponent collapsed. The many little cuts had gradually resulted in a loss of blood to defeat his enemy.

This story reminds me of the current situation with Amtrak and its repeated attempts to eliminate long-distance passenger trains.

Since taking office, President Donald Trump has budgeted zero funds for Amtrak trains. Each year, Congress has appropriated funds for the long-distance trains and told Amtrak it wants a national rail passenger network that retains these trains. Last year, several congressional leaders met with the Amtrak board and told its members to quit trying to eliminate the long-distance trains.

Unable to strike a fatal blow, Amtrak's new strategy to eliminate the long-distance trains involves a death-by-a-thousand-cuts course of action. This series of steps aims to weaken the trains and discourage ridership to where it will eventually bleed a national long-distance rail system to death.

One development is that Amtrak has destaffed a number of stations on its routes. When a ticket agents retires or moves to another station, the vacancy is often not filled. The station is then manned by a custodian who opens the station an hour before the first train arrives and closes it when the last train has passed. The custodian cannot sell tickets or check baggage.

In the pre-Amtrak days, when the privatized railroads operated the passenger trains, Santa Fe, Burlington and Union Pacific tried to run good trains to encourage ridership. The Southern Pacific, in contrast, since it wanted its trains to fail, instructed its agents to lock the depot and leave before a train was due and not return until after the train had passed. Amtrak appears to have taken a page from this history.

One of the joys of passenger train travel has always been eating in the dining car. Although always unprofitable themselves, the dining cars are a highlight of every train trip and kept ridership high. Recently, Amtrak revised its meal service on eastern long-distance trains to eliminate meals prepared on board and substituted airline-type food. A recent rider on one of those trains described the food as little better than cardboard.

The latest attempt to kill off the long-distance passenger trains is to cut service on all long-distance routes from one train per day to tri-weekly service. Amtrak has done this in the past as a cost-saving measure. It always failed, and daily service was restored. The Government Accountability Office reported that the last time this reduction was attempted, Amtrak lost money instead of realizing a savings.

Ridership dropped, and engines and passenger cars were out of position, which resulted in expensive moves to reposition equipment. In June, Amtrak sent a letter to Congress notifying it that effective Thursday, it intends to go to tri-weekly service.

This will create confusion, will result in a long layover time because of imprecise connections and will cause a drop in ridership, with the corresponding drop in revenue only coming back slowly  with the eventual restoration of daily service.

The current Amtrak network is a bare-bones system already. It is a national disgrace compared to rail passenger systems in other countries. We need more and better service, not less. There are many communities on the Amtrak network for which these trains represent the only public transportation available.

The rail mode is the most energy-efficient mode of transportation, produces less pollution and is an all-weather mode that operates when airplanes are grounded and highways are closed because of weather events.

American citizens should rise up in protest to oppose this attempt to eliminate long-distance trains. Instead, insist we make America great again by having a decent passenger rail system rather than one dying of a thousand cuts.

Richard Schmeling is president of Citizens for Improved Transit. He lives in Lincoln.

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