My family and I awoke, greeted by a spectacular show of autumn colors while our Capitol Limited Amtrak train coasted alongside a meandering river somewhere outside Martinsburg, West Virginia. We headed to the glass enclosed lounge car to join a convivial community of train travelers, snapping photos of quaint mountain towns and even a wind farm perched atop a ridge.
Our destination was Washington D.C. and after careful consideration, we concluded that getting to the nation’s capitol by train was both the most energy efficient way (when compared to flying or driving) and a most enjoyable one. We stretched out on comfortable and spacious seats, had plenty of room to stretch our legs in the lounge or cafe car, avoided the hassles of airline check-in and security, and had ample free time to play games with our son, read a book, watch the world passing by out the windows, even sip a cup of Fair Trade Certified Green Mountain Coffee purchased at their cafe.
Hardly our first train trip on Amtrak (and no stranger to the European intercity rail system), we, as ecotravelers, found riding with Amtrak far more than an ecologically sound and more fuel efficient way to travel. We joined a community of fellow travelers eager to slow down more to enjoy the scenery, rather than flying thousands of feet overhead or speeding down boring Interstate Highways in a car.
Americans are riding the rails in a big way these days. From October 2006 to September 2007, about 25.8 million Americans took a trip on Amtrak. An average of more than 70,000 passengers ride on up to 300 Amtrak trains per day. Amtrak, officially called the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, was created by the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970. After a 150 years of passenger rail service by private freight companies largely disappeared due to the rapid growth (and, in hindsight, disasterous ecological and social impacts) of automobile and airline travel, the U.S. government stepped in to set up a public service passenger rail service so that intercity passenger train travel could still be continued. Fortunately for us.
According to Amtrak and echoed by numerous other non-profit organizations committed to cutting carbon emissions from the transportation sector, intercity rail travel is among the most energy efficient ways to travel. A study completed by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory under contract with the U.S. Department of Energy found that in 2005, Amtrak consumed 17 percent and 21 percent less energy per passenger-mile than airlines and cars, respectively. It’s no wonder that the U.S. Senate has introduced a bill to expanded needed funding to the tune of $10 billion for intercity rail transportation and Amtrak. Even Barack Obama hopes to revitalize and strengthen intercity rail travel (he’s a cosponsor of the 2007 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (bill HR 2095). McCain, on the other hand, voted against the bill.
Rather than bailing out banks, we need infrastructure reinvestments that benefit We the people. This reinvestment in an energy efficient transportation system that serves Americans can also reconnect Americans, help rebuild Main Street economies served by the trains and reconnect all of us to one another again as we enjoy America the beautiful together, rather than speeding past on the highways or crammed into airlines.
And, one last thing, we actually arrived only about an hour behind schedule. Imagine what it might be like if Amtrak received funding like some other transportation sectors do?