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ON A BUDGET

Railing against the system

October 26, 2003|Arthur Frommer | Special to The Times

IT was 2 a.m. when my train pulled out of Fargo, N.D., to begin the 36-hour trip to New York City. I was angry and dejected because a minor medical emergency had prevented me from making the trip home in three hours by air. But the journey taught me an important lesson about U.S. rail travel.

I had arrived in Fargo the previous morning to give a speech. As the plane landed, I felt sharp pains in my right ear, then pressure and a reduced ability to hear. Scared, I rushed to the local emergency room and was told that an infection had caused a buildup of fluid behind the middle ear that would take several days of medication to dispel. Meanwhile, I could not take the next day's 2 p.m. flight home, because the air pressure of takeoff and landing might burst the weakened eardrum and cause permanent hearing loss.

My alternatives? Returning to the East Coast by bus would take three days of stop-and-go travel, something I would not do. Nor did I wish to endure days of solitary driving in a rental car, with overnights in motels. So no big deal, I thought; I'd return by Amtrak. The saga began.

I quickly found that across the entire northern swath of the United States -- from Seattle to Fargo to Minneapolis to Chicago -- there is only one daily train, the Empire Builder, in each direction. One slow choo-choo that departs the Pacific Northwest to cross the prairie states and arrive in Fargo at 2 a.m before proceeding for 14 more hours to Minneapolis and Chicago.

After my morning speech, I had to wait 14 hours before starting out on a 36-hour marathon.

I crossed half the United States at speeds averaging 60 mph, compared with the 150 mph that a great many long-distance trains in Europe, Japan and China routinely travel. I had no choice in scheduling the trip. I waited for a middle-of-the-night departure, then spent two nights on the train. I'm still seething.

Our congressional representatives routinely appropriate billions each year for federal highway construction and maintenance, but dig in their heels against funding Amtrak realistically. Some members of Congress favor terminating our national rail system in all areas of the country other than along the Washington, D.C.-New York-Boston corridor. Funded in a grudging, last-minute, stopgap manner, Amtrak stumbles along, unable to properly keep up its facilities and services, let alone bring them to the state-of-the-art levels of speed and efficiency achieved in other prosperous industrial countries.

It is time to make this a major political issue. If you agree, write to your congressional representative and demand an adequate, long-range plan for a healthy U.S. rail system.

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