Get the Nation Back on Track

By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld Print this article Print

Rebuild rails—and systems behind them—so staying out of the mideast will be easier.

It was the Monday evening before America launched its first pre-emptive war.

In front of me was a conference table where a half-dozen businesspeople would discuss travel habits for two hours. Behind the one-way glass, executives of a transportation company would listen and watch in order to "ideate," our moderator tells us.

The executives worked for Amtrak. They were going to develop ideas about the future of the federally subsidized rail service. Specifically, to create repeat business through its Guest Rewards program.

It's almost irrelevant whether trains can outpoint planes, or whether the program's e-mail and print brochures are appealing enough, however.

Amtrak is not going to save itself by tweaking points in a database. Amtrak has to prove that its entire format of travel is superior to the automobile or airplane in the 21st century. Its cost-cutting and route-cutting efforts to date are devoid of the genius and drive that would resuscitate the train as a preferred mode of transportation between major city pairs throughout the country.

Washington has almost wholly missed the point as well. By Wednesday night of that week, U.S. troops were moving into a blinding storm in Iraq.

The purpose was to fight terror, not protect a source of oil. But there's little doubt oil money finances terrorism. Our 250,000 or more troops might not be risking their lives if Mr. Bush—and presidents before him—had committed this nation to alter the transportation its citizenry used.

After Sept. 11, a concerted war on terrorism should include a clear strategy—following a quarter-century of talk—to radically reduce our reliance on foreign oil.

This could easily include higher gasoline taxes to force widespread use of better-mileage automobiles; an end to tax policies encouraging the purchase of sports utility vehicles; and a national commitment to strip out existing rail networks and replace them with fresh track. It's a no-brainer to support high-speed trains that take business and pleasure travelers out of the air and put them back on the ground for trips of three hours or less.

To be sure, Amtrak has a long way to go to improve its operations and justify itself as the centerpiece of a revival of rail transportation in this country. But smart use of information systems would be a good starting point.

President David L. Gunn should look at the service that most appeals to the travelers around this table: the Acela Express between Washington and Boston. Make it the model for future rail travel. Eliminate all low-grade coaches. Eliminate stops in second- and third-tier cities. Work partnerships with bus companies and car services to act as feeder networks into the key regional cities in which high-speed trains would stop. Provide business travelers with door-to-door service, with discounted packages of transportation to the train station and a hotel room at the other end.

With the right information systems, Amtrak then can deliver its real product—a destination—to the customer, with the most convenience of any alternative. A train will be at the center of the mix.

Sen. Ernest Hollings, D.-S.C., proposes to increase spending on Amtrak to $4.6 billion a year. This would renovate track and develop high-speed corridors around the country.

Boosting the federal gas tax by 4 cents, from 18.4 cents, would cover that expenditure. A side benefit would be encouraging truckers and individuals to employ more efficient engines. By comparison, legislators and the Bush administration are debating whether to spend $36.5 billion or $50 billion a year on highways.

But if we don't change our thinking on what transportation systems we want to support, we'll never get out of the middle of the Middle East. Based on 2001 production levels, 83% of global oil reserves will be controlled by Middle Eastern regimes by 2020, according to The Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. Given how slowly we've learned since 1973, when an oil embargo should have changed our minds once and for all, we'd better start now.

The clock won't stop ticking.

This article was originally published on 2003-04-01
Tom was editor-in-chief of Interactive Week, from 1995 to 2000, leading a team that created the Internet industry's first newspaper and won numerous awards for the publication. He also has been an award-winning technology journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
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