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Originally published Friday, December 26, 2008 at 2:01 PM

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An Obama presidency can get rail-passenger service rolling again

The pending inauguration of a strong pro-rail president and an even more fervid pro-rail vice president means the chances for a healthy rail-passenger system and high-speed service in America's major regions are the brightest since Amtrak's founding in 1971.

Syndicated columnist

Rail enthusiasts, for decades spurned by presidents of both parties, were elated by the news that Barack Obama will travel to Washington for his inauguration by train from Philadelphia.

"The symbolism is magnificent and the message very positive for all of us who for so many years have labored to create a more balanced American transportation system," said James RePass, president-founder of the National Corridors Initiative that's pressed since 1989 for upgraded rail passenger service in America.

Noting Obama's train would retrace part of Abraham Lincoln's route to the inauguration in 1861, and stop in Wilmington, Del., to pick up Vice President-elect Joe Biden and his family, RePass added: "It's so neat, charming, and to the point — a wonderful message."

Only a touch more cautiously, Ross Capon of the National Association of Railroad Passengers observes that while Obama's decision to make his inaugural trip by train is "terrific," he hopes "it's matched by policy actions that make it possible for lots more Americans to arrive by train in lots more places."

There, of course, is the rub. Although Amtrak, the semipublic rail passenger operating system, is reporting double-digit ridership increases, it faces huge hurdles. "The equipment status is near collapse," notes former Amtrak President Thomas Downs. "Every locomotive needs to be rebuilt. Ditto almost every passenger car. Track speeds keep getting lower, equipment out of date. The system is starved for capital."

And with a need for professional management, Downs added. The system is "rudderless" with severe board turnover and "changing presidents like people change shirts."

Even before Obama's election, Congress was showing fresh and strong interest in a national rail system that could begin to parallel the truly high-speed modern rail service every other industrial country now enjoys (including an astounding 5,000 additional miles currently planned in China).

The Bush White House, which repeatedly tried to kill off Amtrak by zero funding its operations, had to relent this autumn. Fearing a veto override, the president went along with a sweeping $13 billion railroad-improvement bill sponsored by Reps. James Oberstar, D-Minn., and John Mica, R-Fla.

The measure takes Amtrak off its thin-gruel yearly rations, granting its first capital authorization since 1997. And it more than doubles its basic funding. Plus, it lays the groundwork for collaborative federal, state and private financing of modern high-speed rail corridors in the Northeast Corridor and 10 other regions nationwide.

Add to that the pending inauguration of a strong pro-rail president and, in Biden, an even more fervid pro-rail vice president, and it is suddenly clear: The chances for a healthy passenger system and high-speed service in America's major regions are the brightest since Amtrak's founding in 1971.

But there'll be tests. First up: Will railroads get a break in the massive economic-stimulus package now being debated (and fiercely fought over by states and localities)? The States for Passenger Rail Coalition reports its 31 member states have over $1.4 billion worth of ready-to-go, state-sponsored, city-to-city projects. Passenger trains are "penciled in" at $2 billion in the stimulus bill draft of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

But without strong presidential backing, rails could too easily lose out as not being "shovel-ready" — even though Amtrak could, for example, hire more people, and move quickly to bring equipment into its overhaul shops in Indiana and Delaware. Track-repair work everywhere could be accelerated. And there are many areas where new track can be added on existing routes, cutting back on the delays for freight trains that often slow Amtrak trains.

One big need: Refurbishing the Northeast Corridor, which handles close to 140 Acela and regional trains daily. Most of its electrification is 70 years old. The 1873-vintage masonry arch tunnel at Baltimore needs replacement — especially its sharp curve that limits southbound trains to 30 miles an hour. The 961-foot Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River in New Jersey, more than 90 years old, actually has to swing open, stopping all trains, to let marine vessels pass through. Other bridges and tunnels are in dire shape. Such projects may not be shovel-ready, but they're crucial, and will need the new administration's support.

There's little doubt the public wants modern high-speed rail service — just note Californians' recent approval of $9 billion for a 220-mile-per-hour line to link all major cities from Sacramento to San Diego. Regions from the Midwest to Texas to Florida and the South's Piedmont area to the Pacific Northwest need to make parallel progress soon. In the process, there'll be no substitute for a reformed and strong Amtrak, backed by the White House, willing to set high standards and raise the huge budgets equal to repairing a half-century's negligence.

That's a thought for Obama as he debarks at Washington's Union Station and walks through its gloriously restored Great Hall.

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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