April 29, 2005
Mississippi was one of the first states to pioneer the use of railroads. America's third railroad was the West Feliciana, planned way back in 1828 and chartered in 1831. With it came the world's first standard-gauge tracks laid between Woodville and St. Francisville, Louisiana. By the Civil War, Mississippi's spider-web rail network was so critical that William T. Sherman led 20,000 Union soldiers through central Mississippi just to destroy Mississippi's rail centers. Even 175 years later, railroads remain part of our landscape, but for how long?
With my support, railroads will continue to play a vital role in Mississippi, and that includes our national rail passenger service, Amtrak. Many question why a Senator from Mississippi is so committed to keeping alive Amtrak — a system more closely associated with big city commuters. Well, it's not due to my nostalgia for the past, but my concern for our future.
Railroads have survived so long because they are so versatile, and they have enough unexploited potential to last us another 175 years and far beyond. While today's tracks look no different than they did in 1800s Woodville, the machinery that rolls on them is vastly improved. The Japanese and Europeans in particular have advanced rail passenger service to levels far beyond that of other nations, including ours. Many will say this is because of their compact geography which makes high-speed train usage very feasible, but that's not the whole story.
Those countries are committed to their railroads because they have to be. Their energy costs are much higher, and the advantages of electric and diesel-electric locomotion for cargo and passenger transport are self-evident. Think about it. Even America's old standard locomotives use basically the same technology that is touted in today's "new" gas/electric hybrid cars. With our own nation experiencing ever-increasing energy costs, terrorist threats and congested airports, rail passenger service certainly not only has a place, but a lot of potential sure to be needed.
Amtrak is not profitable. It has problems with its unions. It runs on freight railroads that Amtrak doesn't even own, causing delays and confusion. But simply ending all passenger rail service in America — as the Bush Administration is trying to do by zeroing-out Amtrak's budget — is very shortsighted given the uncertainty of our times. Twenty-five million Americans annually depend on Amtrak's clean, energy-efficient transport. Who is to say that another terrorist attack, another oil embargo, or any unforseen circumstance couldn't double, triple or even quadruple that 25 million folks.
I helped craft the Amtrak Reform Act of 1997 which gave Amtrak authority to outsource some of its services. To my dismay, it did not. It used capital which should have been devoted to operating costs to finance high-speed rail upgrades in the Northeast Corridor, and it has borrowed to pay debt. But, I'm an advocate of all forms of transportation. Our tax dollars support highways, airlines, mass transit and just about all forms of transportation — not to make money, but to enable the making of money. These are the vessels on which our dynamic, private-sector economy depends, so I don't have a long knife drawn for Amtrak.
Rather than just permanently shutting down America's rail passenger service, the wise thing to do is to become more innovative. I want to establish bonding authority for Amtrak so that it won't have to come to Congress every year begging for more money. Amtrak's current managers are very candid about its shortcomings, and they understand the mistakes that have been made. I'm convinced they can make Amtrak work, through more innovative financing methods, including bonding.
As a nation, we have to ask ourselves: "Do we want to continue rail passenger service in America or lose that resource? Looking into the uncertainties of our energy supply, of the terrorist threat, and of congested airports and highways, and considering the rapid rail advancements being made by other nations, I strongly believe we should continue national rail passenger service. If our economy is to continue to be the world's best, we must invest in transportation for the long term — just like the investors in the West Feliciana Railroad did. They saw potential. They saw that the future could ride rails. Do we? (4/29/05)
Senator Lott welcomes any questions or comments about this column. Write to: U.S. Senator Trent Lott, 497 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510 (Attn: Press Office)