Laying Tracks for a Better Future

If one were only to read the numerous stories that have appeared in the mainstream press over the past few weeks about passenger trains, one could easily come away with the impression that these are boom times on the rails. Such an impression is grounded in reality -- to an extent.

Amtrak just announced that it is on pace to set yet another annual ridership record, as widely expected. Patronage is up throughout the network, particularly on the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast corridors, but also considerably (especially given limited capacity) on the national network of overnight trains. It's no surprise when you consider that the long-term trend in gas prices is up, and worsening road congestion is plaguing many American communities. If nothing is done to change the status quo in our national transportation policy, these trends will continue to the point where our freedom of mobility becomes noticeably diminished -- carrying negative consequences not just for the quality of our lives, but also for the health of our economy.

A local TV station reported this week on the growing numbers of Illinoisans turning to trains for intra-state travel as they feel pain at the pump. Numerous cities, including Tucson, Washington DC, New Orleans and Cincinnati, announced recently that they are reaching milestones in their quests to build streetcar lines. Increased attention is being paid to the economic lifeline represented by Amtrak's overnight trains like the Southwest Chief to places like Colorado and New Mexico, and to the potential economic boon that a Fort Worth-Kansas City train link could bring to the southern plains. And a nationwide trend of young Americans away from reliance on cars for most travel is becoming more evident, as documented by our friends at the US Public Interest Research Group.

The evolution in people's thinking about transportation in metropolitan areas -- where the majority of the US population lives -- is evident. Just last night, before a crowd of average interested citizens, Washington, DC Mayor Vincent Gray -- a man not known for rocking the boat -- emphasized his fiscal 2013 budget's call for more speed limit enforcement cameras throughout the city. He painted it not just as a safety measure, but in terms of shifting the balance of transportation away from cars in a city where growth is increasingly focused on the urban core rather than the suburban fringe. "Cars are not the way of the future," Gray proclaimed with emphasis, straying from his usual subdued oratory style. "We've gotta get people out of cars, so we've gotta make sure our streets are safe [for all users]." He repeated this point in answering an audience member's question about the cameras.

At the end of the day, though, the question remains: Will these encouraging realities "on the ground" translate into elected officials' will to follow their constituents and make the investments needed for America to realize a more mobile, prosperous and sustainable future? NARP's volunteer leadership will be doing their part to make the answer a resounding "Yes" during our annual Day on the Hill on Tuesday, April 24. But moving the needle the rest of the way is up to all of us who recognize the central role trains must play in our transportation future.

You can take the message directly to your elected officials through letters, calls and emails to their offices (particularly Members of Congress' local district offices), letters to the editor of local newspapers that mention key elected officials by name, and by attending local events at which your representatives will be present and speaking to them or asking questions. You can also help by reaching out to your friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. Simply engage them in conversation about local and national transportation needs and refer them to NARP's Website. You're also invited to ask us to send you brochures and bookmarks to give them or leave at train stations, public libraries, coffee shops, and other places where they are likely to be seen and taken.

Think of each little action you take for our cause -- each email, each conversation with someone you know, each brochure you pass out -- as the laying of a crosstie or the driving of a spike on the track that will carry the country into a more livable future for all.

--Malcolm Kenton

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