Hit the highway: travelers feel the effects of Amtrak's low self-esteem 

It's a typical weekday morning on the expressways heading north toward Milwaukee. The cars are backed up for miles, creeping forward a few feet at a time.

The motorists sit in their cars, unable to read, write, play cards, go to the bathroom, send a fax, or walk about and stretch their legs. When the local gridlock eases, they sprint ahead, trying to make up for lost time, eyes peeled for state troopers, only to hit another wall of traffic outside Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, Amtrak's passenger train, only half filled, zips from Chicago to Milwaukee in a little more than 90 minutes.

The contrast of these empty train cars and crowded expressways results from a senseless transportation policy that gets more irrational by the day, critics say. To ease congestion, reduce pollution, and allow travelers to be more productive with their time, the government ought to encourage people to ride Amtrak to Milwaukee.

Instead, Amtrak recently announced plans to decrease runs and increase fares on the Chicago-Milwaukee service known as the Hiawatha. "It's almost as though Amtrak doesn't care if the Hiawatha fails," says Jim Coston, a Chicago lawyer and train advocate who would like to serve on Amtrak's board of directors. "And if they keep running it the way they do, it will fail."

Coston's part of a coalition of railroad supporters here and in Milwaukee that's trying to pressure Amtrak into rethinking its policies. Using their influence with Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson and Milwaukee mayor John Norquist, they persuaded Amtrak to abandon its original plans to eliminate the Hiawatha. But the activists want to go beyond the bare-bones service Amtrak agreed to maintain. They want Amtrak to upgrade rail lines, use the fastest equipment, and increase the number of runs.

"I'm not satisfied with salvaging bits and pieces of a train line--that's a strategy for defeat," says F.K. Plous, a publicist and train advocate. "Let's build up the system so it can compete against the highways. Give people a choice and they'll start using trains."

There was a time, about 40 years ago, when three railroads ran dozens of trains between Chicago and Milwaukee every day. "The NorthWestern had a dozen trains going back and forth," says Coston. "Believe it or not, there were trains running on electric tracks that ran around the Loop on the CTA's elevated tracks, up to Evanston, Lake Bluff, Waukegan, Kenosha, Racine, and into Milwaukee, where it also made several stops. And it ran hourly."

Over the years most train lines went out of business or cut back services. In 1971 the federal government created Amtrak, a consolidation of almost all the private train companies responsible for interstate transport.

But Amtrak never received as much government support as the highways and airports; indeed the Reagan and Bush administrations, as well as the new Republican Congress, proposed eliminating its budget. "When you hear people like Newt Gingrich talk about trains they use words like hemorrhage and waste--like the system is draining our economy dry," says Coston. "You never hear them talk like that about highways or civil aviation."

Yet taxpayers annually spend billions of dollars subsidizing airplanes and cars through various state, local, and federal taxes. "The money it costs to support Amtrak is a single line item in the budget," says Plous. "You can point at it, make fun of it, promise to get rid of it. None of the other forms of transportation have to suffer that kind of scrutiny because their subsidies come out of many different programs."

For instance, Illinois governor Jim Edgar is proposing to build more highways in the state's northeast corner while continually spending billions to rebuild the main expressways. "People who don't drive or who don't drive very much are subsidizing people who drive a lot," says Plous.

The federal government also spends about $3 billion a year underwriting the air traffic control system.

"Politicians would never dare to threaten these subsidies because they think it's what the public wants," says Ann McGregor, administrative director of the Illinois chapter of Citizens for a Better Environment. "Cars have become an extension of our right to individualism. People have been sold on the idea of the freedom of the highways. The right to get out and drive our cars is deemed an entitlement, like social security."

It's as though the public has been brainwashed, says Plous: "They have discovered in laboratory experiments that people regard what they see through the windshield of a car as their property. There's an impression of control. You own that wheel and that window. On a train, all you have is the seat. Americans are not trained to use public space."

Over the last few years Amtrak has been under pressure to cut expenses, even as the government spends more on highways. Amtrak's expected to pay 82 percent of its operating costs out of ticket revenues.

The Republican takeover of Congress makes Amtrak's future even more uncertain, as Gingrich and Senate Republican leaders Robert Dole and Phil Gramm argue against Amtrak funding.

"Part of the problem is that Amtrak has had to survive 12 years of Republican administrations," says Coston. "First Reagan and then Bush tried to legislate Amtrak out of business every year by giving it a zero budget. Rather than reinvest in new equipment, Amtrak ran its current fleet into the ground. They kept cutting people and investment."

In December Amtrak announced the unthinkable: it was going to eliminate the seven-train Hiawatha fleet, saving some $7 million a year.

The result was an outpouring of protest, particularly from Wisconsin, whose governor is one of the few prominent Republicans willing to buck the party's antipathy to train transportation.

Using his influence in the Wisconsin state assembly, Thompson got his state to increase its annual share of the Hiawatha's budget to $812,500 from $700,000. (Although Illinois agreed to raise its $150,000 contribution by $37,500, Edgar has remained silent on the issue, while pressing to build more highways and airports.) Last month Amtrak officials agreed to keep the service running for at least one more year, while cutting the daily runs to four and sharply increasing fares.

Amtrak's chief midwest spokesperson, Debbie Hare, would not return phone calls. But she was quoted in wire service stories as saying the railroad would continue to look for ways to cut costs. It's that sort of defeatist psychology that got Amtrak into trouble in the first place, critics says.

"Amtrak needs to go to a shrink, they have such an inferiority complex," says Coston. "When they cut the route back in December, Amtrak sent out a press release saying something like people in the midwest will be better off because we can now use the equipment from the Hiawatha to make the rest of the system better. I can't believe they actually believe that stuff, but that's what they said. Apparently they think they can satisfy the budget cutters by cutting their own budget. It's weird, and I don't think it will work because Amtrak's opponents won't be satisfied until they eliminate all federal spending for the system."

In contrast, Amtrak continues to shower resources on the northeast corridor, with stops in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. "The eastern corridor is the only run Amtrak takes seriously," says Coston. "Everything else is expendable."

To prove his point, Coston compares the Hiawatha with the run between Philadelphia and New York.

"The distance between Philadelphia and New York is almost the same as the distance between Chicago and Milwaukee," says Coston. "On the New York line, though, trains do 91 miles in 78 to 87 minutes with two to three stops. Our run goes 86 miles in 92 minutes with two stops. Their maximum speed is 115 miles per hour; our trains go about 70. They have hot water in their washrooms, a club car serving drinks and food, and on-board telephones; our trains have none of that. The fares are almost the same. No wonder the eastern corridor is booming. If we offered service like that to Milwaukee you'd have to beat people away with a stick."

Coston and his allies contend that the country is at a disadvantage because of its outdated attitudes toward train travel.

"That businessman driving from Chicago to Milwaukee in his $30,000 car with the telephone thinks he's a big shot," says Plous. "Yet he's wasting his time. While he's driving he can't read, write, send a fax, or have a conference. He's a prisoner of outdated technology. His counterpart in Japan or Korea is sitting in a private compartment of a business-class coach doing business. And we're supposed to be the leaders of the world?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jon Randolph.

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