Revive Passenger Rail

traintraincommi20896November 11, 2016

Now that we have a Republican president-elect, one who some say will support infrastructure re-building, I’d like to put in my bid for passenger rail.  This is not a new issue for me.  In fact, I wrote President George Bush a letter about it in December, 2005, posted it on my now-defunct website, and sent copies by snail-mail to multiple players on House and Senate committees.

As I see it, the primary reason passenger rail has given way to the private automobile is that the roads and highways are under the public domain and maintained by various Departments of Transportation, but the rail lines are owned by private corporations, like CSX, Norfolk-Southern, and Western Pacific.

President-elect Trump has indicated he wants to expand eminent domain, but no one has suggested eminent domain should be used to acquire corporate land, especially land that holds such a nationally valuable asset such as rail infrastructure.

For a little background on this particular subject, I’m posting below the un-edited letter I wrote to President Bush in 2005.  I have not followed Amtrak since but still believe the passenger rail system deserves careful consideration in light of the energy crisis, global warming, oil pipelines, fracking, automobile congestion, traffic fatalities and and other unhealthy and energy inefficient practices that we have inherited.

 

December, 2005

All Aboard for
DAVID GUNN
 former CEO of Amtrak

A Voter-Citizen-Taxpayer  Apology  For the way he was treated by
the United States Government

George W. Bush
Chief Executive Officer, USA Corporation
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear George:

The jig is up, Prez.  The plutocracy can no longer hide the garbage it has dumped in our laps, and the “oil crisis” is the pivot point. This latest ploy to churn public assets into private friends’ hands is the last straw.  Let’s compute taxpayer costs of the artificially created markets, fake wars, price supports, subsidies, duties, tariffs, and taxes, at every step of the exploration-to-drilling-to-gas pump vampirism.  Let’s add up the costs to voter-taxpayer-citizens of US government spending to assist US corporations engaged in domestic and foreign oil exploitation, and all the political “friends” who are selling war machines to every country with the money to pay for them . . . and then explain why you want to starve the US public transportation system.

Yes, I am talking about Amtrak. I last traveled Amtrak in May, 2004.  When was the last time you did?  Even though the House last week has tentatively approved $1.315 billion for Amtrak, your original budget provided no money for passenger rail service.  Meanwhile, Amtrak ridership has grown for three straight years, reaching 25,374,998 in FY 2005.

I learned a lot on my Amtrak trip.  Bureaucratic red tape delayed my Silver Star five hours.  I know, because I spent that time shooting the breeze with off-duty conductors and engineers.  They told me how much they respected David Gunn.  They said he’d made a monumental effort to locate un-catalogued warehouses full of parts, supplies, tools, and other equipment that had been lost for decades.  By indexing these supplies, he made it easier for Amtrak employees to find the items necessary to fix problems quickly, efficiently, and inexpensively.  They said Amtrak employees at all levels of the system respected and liked him.  Their attitudes showed it.

You might understand why I was horrified to learn the Amtrak Board Chairman David Laney, Esquire fired Mr. Gunn November 9.  It doesn’t make sense to this aging Boomer, who believes I’m more competent to provide for my future than you are. How, in this “oil crisis” can you justify disabling the most efficient and time-tested use of transportation energy ever devised?

Are you crazy?  I must be crazy to subsidize this incompetence.  So I work and spend as little as possible, to reduce my taxes legally.  The best things in life really are free, so far. Meanwhile, this is how I vote my tax dollars:

DEFENSE – 0%
AMTRAK- 100% of my tax dollars for the rest of your term
(except for 2005, which I’ve already promised to West Central Psychiatric Hospital in Columbus, GA)

One citizen = one vote

Here’s what we need to do.  Eminent domain all the intercity train tracks back.  Passengers have priority over freight, because the passengers pay the taxes and buy the freight.  If the United States Supreme Court can take Susette Kelo’s neighborhood for Pfizer Corporation, the US government can nationalize the rail lines and maintain them as part of the transportation grid.  Link them to the interstate highway system under the Department of Transportation’s maintenance budget, and voila, Amtrak begins to look a lot more attractive.

This cost-saving move will liberate Amtrak to run a user-friendly railroad passenger and freight service. First, we fire the idiots who are quibbling about food cars.  Can’t the US government make a profit on a food monopoly in a hungry, captive, market, with money to spend, on a long distance trip?  Lease me a franchise food car on any Amtrak train, and I’ll show you how.

Better still, lease me a franchise cyber café car with a liquor license.  Think you could pull some strings and get me one of those?  Solar panels on the roof, and an outdoor smoking patio at the back of the car?  Did you know the government gets $3.50 for every legal fifth of liquor sold?  And the tax on cigarettes was 76 cents a pack, last time I checked.  It stimulates the economy to encourage these vices.  Why fight it?  If you want to privatize government, let’s do it in style.

As for Express Trak Freight . . . Do UPS and FedEx pay you to lose money?  They’re getting good value for their shareholders.  I wish the CEO of the USA Corporation could claim as much.

I believe the USA has the worst public transportation system in the world, but I haven’t been everywhere you’ve been.  Tell me, does anybody have worse public transportation than us? Not counting Iraq?  I’d love to see some pictures.  Remember, I pay your travel expenses, but you don’t pay mine.  I stay home, monitor the domestic front, and write letters.  Lots of them, as you probably know.

So George, ask DOT Secretary Mineta to look into that fancy Japanese railroad technology, but make sure he understands we don’t want the equipment unless they teach us how to install and service it.  The technology is worthless if you don’t have local skilled labor to keep it running right.  Besides, if China blows Japan out of the water, we lose if we can’t maintain our own stuff.

This way, we could bring soldiers home and put them to work on the transportation infrastructure. Same salary and benefits.  Help local communities upgrade local systems, so people who can’t afford cars can still work.  I’d support that taxpayer expense.  Help them help themselves, and all that.  Teach a man to fish.

Speaking of the Department of Transportation, what is that $1.1 billion federal grant to Georgia’s DOT for?  Our local legislators plead ignorance.  Is it to promote this Interstate 3 idea between Savannah, Augusta, and Knoxville, Tennessee?   I hear you want to cut a wide swath with barricades at eye level along the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, some of the most beautiful scenery in the country.   I can understand why you’ve kept this funding bonanza quiet.  It appears you don’t want Americans to know how you’re spending our money here.  We live here, George.  We have a right to know.

Now, if you want to allocate that $1.1 billion to reviving the Nancy Hanks passenger train between Savannah, Macon, and Atlanta, I’ll be happy to help, if you’ll  re-hire David Gunn.  I would eagerly support that taxpayer expense.  Mention it to Governor Sonny Perdue, if you think it’s a good idea.  I write letters to him, too.

You and I begin to speak the same language if you talk about an environmentally friendly passenger trains through our lovely country.  Train travel takes us beyond media hype, to the America that exists in three dimensions.

Next question.  I’ve been doing research on the National Rail Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) Board of Directors.  Let’s see if I have this straight.  The board is supposed to have seven members, but it only has four.  As a member of your Cabinet, DOT Secretary Norman Y. Mineta holds one seat.  Of the three remaining members, all are Bush appointees, but only one of them has been confirmed by the Senate.  This gentleman is David M. Laney, Esq., Chairman of the National Rail Passenger Corporation Board of Directors and the man who fired Amtrak CEO David Gunn on November 9, 2005. The other two members, Enrique Sosa (announced April, 2004), and Floyd Hall (announced August, 2004), were recess appointments and were never confirmed by the Senate.  Not only that, but their terms are due to expire this month.

Of course everyone questions whether Mr. Gunn’s firing was legal, a point raised by Transportation & Infrastructure RR Subcommittee Chair Steven LaTourette (R-OH) and echoed by others.  What, exactly do the NRPC’s by-laws say about this?  We need to clarify them so this doesn’t happen again.  In fact, I believe the NRPC should be scrapped, and the Department of Transportation should embrace Amtrak under its protective funding umbrella.  This would elevate passenger rail to the same status as the private automobile and dramatically reduce our perceived dependence on foreign oil.

In any case, George, which member of the current board represents any opinion but yours?  And who gave David Laney that $100,000 for your election campaign?  What do these mysterious benefactors say about Amtrak?

I longer feel obligated to put up with this.  As government costs more and more to do less and less, I begin to wonder what I need government for. Not just you, George, but the entire federal government, including the Legislature and the Supreme Court.  Especially the Supreme Court, after the Kelo decision, but I can deal with only one problem at a time, since don’t get paid for this and have to make my time count.

You made a big mistake firing Mr. Gunn.  He came out of retirement to work for you in May, 2002, so what changed?  Makes you look awfully wishy-washy. I vote for you to offer him an apology and a raise, and beg him to come back.

That he had to fight the US government to protect the US public transportation system was a pathetic waste of his talent.  Government isn’t supposed to make a profit.  That’s why it extorts taxes to support inherently unprofitable services.  Like the presidency, for instance.

This taxpayer wants someone who can get the job done right, on time, with a minimum of hassle. How much does he need?  Give it to him, Prez, then get out of the way. That’s my vote.

Government has a public obligation to insure good value for our taxpayer money.  Its primary responsibility is to pay for the infrastructure that ensures a smoothly functioning society.  By doing this, it shifts larger costs to the larger group, which maintains the balance by using the services.  This makes it easier for individuals and businesses to profit from genuine free-market capitalism in a social context.

Sincerely,
Katharine C. Otto, MD
President, Chair, and CEO
Psychiatrists for Sanity
(and so far, the only member)

cc:

David Gunn
Former CEO of Amtrak
Wherever You Are

National Association of Railroad Passengers
(NARP) www.narprail.org
Another great source

David H. Laney, Esq.
Chairman of the Board
National Railroad Passenger Corporation
60 Massachusetts Avenue NE
Washington DC  20002

Secretary Norman Y. Mineta
US Dept of Transportation
400 7th Street, SW
Washington DC  20590

US Rep Don Young (R-AK), Chairman
Transportation & Infrastructure
2111 Rayburn HOB
Washington DC  20515
Phone:  202-225-5765
Fax:  202-225-0425

US Rep Steven LaTourette (R-OH)
Transportation & Infrastructure
RR Subcommittee Chair
2453 Rayburn HOB
Washington DC  20515
Phone:  202-225-5731

US Sen Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)
416 Russell Senate Bldg
Washington DC  20510
202-224-3521

US Sen Johnny Isakson (R-GA)
120 Russell Senate Bldg
Washington DC  20510
202-224-3643

US Sen John McCain (R-AZ)
Commerce, Science & Transportation
241 Russell Senate Bldg
Washington DC  20510
Phone:  202-224-2235

US Rep Jack Kingston (R-GA)
2242 Rayburn HOB
Washington DC  20515
Phone:  202-225-5831
Fax:  202-226-2269
Savannah office:
1 Diamond Causeway, Ste 7, 31406
Phone:  912-352-0101

US Rep John Barrow (R-GA)
226 Cannon HOB
Washington, DC  20515
Phone:  202-225-2823
Savannah office:
400 Mall Blvd, Ste G, 31406
912-354-7282

US Rep Charlie Norwood (R-GA)
2452 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC  20515
202-225-4101

 

Friends of Amtrak  www.trainweb.org/crocon
A great resource for Amtrak information

US Rep Corrine Brown (D-FL-JAX)*
Transportation & Infrastructure
Ranking Member of RR Subcommittee
2444 Rayburn HOB
Washington DC  20515
202-255-0123
Fax:  202-225-2256

US Rep Joe Schwartz, MD (D-MI)
128 Cannon HOB
Washington, DC  20515
202-225-6276
Fax:  202-225-2681

US Sen Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ)
Commerce, Science & Transportation
324 Hart Senate Bldg
Washington DC  20510
Phone:  202-224-3224
Fax:  202-228-4054

US Sen Trent Lott (R-MS), Member
Commerce, Science & Transportation
487 Russell Senate Bldg
Washington, DC  20510
Phone:  202-224-6253
Fax:  202-224-2262

US Sen Conrad Burns (R-MT)
187 Dirksen Senate Office Bldg
Washington DC  20510
202-224-2644

US Rep Mike Castle (R-DE)
1233 Longworth HOB
Washington DC  20515
202-225-4165

US Rep James Oberstar (D-MN)
2365 Rayburn HOB
Washington DC  20515
202-225-6211

US Rep Lynn A. Westmoreland (R-GA)
Transportation & Infrastructure
1118 Longworth HOB
Washington DC  20515
Phone:  202-225-5901
Fax:  202-225-2515

Justice Clarence Thomas
Supreme Court of the United States
One First Street NE
Washington DC  20543
202-479-3211

Justice John Paul Stevens
Supreme Court of the United States
One First Street NE
Washington DC  20543
202-479-3211

Harold Linnenkohl, Commissioner
GA Dept of Transportation (GDOT)
2 Capitol Square SW, Room 102
Atlanta, GA  30334
404-656-5206
Fax:  404-657-8389

*Our sister to the south, US Representative Corrine Brown (D-FL-JAX), is the ranking Democratic member of the Railroad Subcommittee of Transportation & Infrastructure.  She is also a strong Amtrak advocate and supporter of re-hiring David Gunn.  See her press release at http://www.house.gov/corrinebrown/press109/pr051109.htm.

On November 9, 27 members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure sent a letter to Mr. Laney, expressing their “outrage” at David Gunn’s  dismissal.

Voter-citizen-taxpayers who support apologizing to Mr. Gunn, offering him a raise, and guaranteeing him as much money as he needs to get the job done right, please send a train to the Prez.  I don’t believe he’s ever had one.

President George W. Bush

United States of America
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
Phone:  202-456-1414
FAX: 202-456-2461
e-mail:  comments@whitehouse.gov
Congressional switchboard:  1-202-224-3121
Senators:  www.senate.gov
Representatives:  www.house.gov
A public service initiative courtesy of  www.mhconnections.com

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4 thoughts on “Revive Passenger Rail

  1. Doug's BoomerRants

    I guess I’m reading this post a tad late… so my apologies. But I couldn’t help but be struck by a couple issues here. Why should tax dollars at all pay for passenger rail? Well, seems the idea is not profitable enough for those private corporations so the government got into the subsidy business. No question, there is a romance with touring the country by rail. We have a country chock full of nature’s beauty you can’t see by car on interstates. But it IS just that.. touring… for leisure. That mode of transportation is hardly going to fit the bill for efficiency and speed in a business world of getting from point A to point B fast… and the last I checked, prices were nearly the same or greater than taking a plane… on top of taking longer to arrive at your destination.

    Now, you can talk forever about the latest railroad gurus who have been canned or acclaimed, or individuals in Congress voting one way or another, or the continued litany of oil. The problem in the end is how to make the American public take interest in railroad travel, even if only for leisure, and how to make a profit doing it… without subsidies… so that the corporations will take the load off the taxpayer. If the government has to use tax bucks to stimulate and provide seed money (or make available public lands or reduce legal barriers) that’s one thing.. but the goal should be free market. The government has no business being in business. In the end, if the public is simply not interested in rail travel no matter how much value-added incentives are tossed into the railcars…. then maybe it goes by way of the gooneybird. Free market is survival of the fittest.

    Reply
    1. katharineotto Post author

      Highway and rail are not on the same playing field, since highways are publicly owned and rail lines are privately owned. Eminent domain has become a big issue, lately, what with oil companies wanting to use it to build pipelines and the like. However, the eminent domain sword cuts both ways. Perhaps the rail lines should be eminent domained into the public sector. That would make rail cost competitive in a heartbeat.

      Infrastructure costs money but does not make money, except in the short term. The return on the investment comes with profits made by people using the system.

      Reply
  2. navasolanature

    Fascinating and in the UK the actual rail tracks are publicly owned but the routes became privatised hence we have Virgin trains run well by Richard Branson’s company but other routes in a mess. I think most trains in Europe are state enterprises and work well!

    Reply
    1. katharineotto Post author

      Thanks for the info. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in thinking passenger rail could be more accessible and affordable for the public. Europe definitely has a better passenger rail system than the US. The private auto was never allowed to subvert it, maybe because of limited space.

      Reply

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