Save Cornwells Heights
Friday, September 16, 2005
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Yesterday, Congressman Michael Fitzpatrick and I had a very good meeting with the President of Amtrak, Mr. David Gunn, and three of his top aides. Even before the 9 a.m. meeting began in Congressman Fitzpatrick’s Washington office, Amtrak issued an official press release saying that the fare increases that were to take effect on September 20th will not be put into effect then, after all. The statement basically amounts to an indefinite reprieve from the rate hike while Amtrak gives more thought and consideration to feedback received. At minimum, this buys time to come up with alternatives to having everyone at Cornwells Heights, for instance, fork over about $4,000 of after-tax income per year to meet Amtrak’s sudden demands.
Mr. Gunn also expressed the intent to continue providing uninterrupted Amtrak service to Cornwells Heights with no plan for termination of any sort on the horizon. It appears at this point that the transfer of Clocker trains to New Jersey Transit is a contractual done deal, and cannot be stopped at this late date. Our 6:55 train is a Clocker and will be gone, but it is my understanding that another non-Clocker Amtrak train will stop at the station around that time instead. Our 8:11 Keystone train will also remain. Though not yet able to make us an absolute guarantee, it appears that Amtrak will make a good faith effort to provide a third train which will arrive substantially earlier than the 6:55 and make it to New York in the ballpark of about 7:30 a.m. I hope to find out whether or not that will be made definite in the near future. The meeting was quite cordial, and I thank Mr. Gunn and crew for taking the time and making the effort to meet us perhaps even more than half way.
Truce with Amtrak
In the last three weeks, I’ve done a fair amount of “beating up” on Amtrak on this website. Back on August 31st, though, I made this declaration: “I’ll be roasting Amtrak as hard and as fast as I can, up to the point that they realize I’m on their side.” That time has come.
Given the constant state of financial distress that Amtrak has been in for decades, I have long been impressed by the high quality of the service they provide. Occasional late trains notwithstanding, Amtrak shows up remarkably well on time with clean, comfortable coaches that I would be hard pressed to find fault with in any way. With very comfortable full height reclining seats, adequate leg room, and fold-down trays, Amtrak actually wins back time for me every day that I ride it – either with extra sleep, getting work done on a laptop, or de-stressing with a good book. I would rather spend a very good hour commuting on an Amtrak train than spend half an hour commuting on a standard New Jersey Transit train, for instance, which facilitates neither sleep nor work, with its denser, trayless bench seating – a form of mild, silent suffering. The extra care and attention put into Amtrak trains makes commuting vastly more productive and pleasurable than the alternatives.
I very much like and admire Amtrak’s service, and believe it should be the very model for what rail commuting should come to be in this country. I’m not just writing this to make nice. I’ve only been fighting this hard to keep Amtrak because Amtrak is worth fighting this hard for. I met with four very good men from Amtrak yesterday. I believe they are stuck between a rock and a funding hard place, trying to keep rail travel alive in America with little or no public subsidization, probably amidst a corporate mess not originally of their making. They need help.
I know that Congressman Fitzpatrick is dedicated to finding ways to improve, streamline, and grow rail travel in this country. In a time such as now when gasoline is starting to become less affordable than once could have been imagined, I believe he hopes to find a way to get this country to plan and build the necessary infrastructure for clean, efficient rail service for when the gas runs out. This seems very wise to me, too. Both he and I expect to remain committed to helping advance that cause.
The Cornwells Heights station, to be sure, is not out of the woods yet. It will take continued work to keep Amtrak alive enough to continue to provide service into the indefinite future. It will take continued work to prevent the $4,000 Amtrak ticket surprise from popping back into our lives a few weeks down the road. But I think we’ve turned a corner now, and I think it can all be done.
I have no intention of “selling out” to Amtrak’s party line, and I expect to post criticisms on this site in the future, but to the extent that I do so, I wish it to be viewed as honest disagreement with good men who work under very difficult conditions and constraints. Good men who love good trains, as I believe all four that I met yesterday were, are what this country needs right now. And they need our support and help, and they deserve our thanks – even if incomprehensibly strange behavior sometimes belches forth from the beast they ride.
It’s all going to be really cool someday.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
I do not want to give the impression in any way that I am claiming personal responsibility for what has recently been achieved in the area of getting Amtrak to think straight. Sometimes a cause is just so right that it sells itself. People filling in forms and sending in e-mails help. Amtrak’s backing down from a huge fare increase reflected resistance from Amtrak riders pretty much everywhere, not just at Cornwells Heights. (But it was still an absolute joy to be given a copy of the press release saying so in the first minute of our meeting with Amtrak.)
Furthermore, please know that Congressman Michael Fitzpatrick has something very unusual in his bones. It’s a combination of sincerity, honesty, and work ethic that I cynically thought, like most Americans these days, couldn’t be found inside Washington’s beltway anymore. I’ve never in my life been more impressed by a politician who wasn’t even trying to impress me. I may show up at the Cornwells Heights station more frequently than he does, but be assured there is an extraordinarily good man with an extraordinarily good staff in Washington doing his level best to do his job well for all of us.
On Monday I expect to post another Fire and Motion request to pelt Amtrak’s directors with calls for an end to the secrecy with which they manage their company amidst constant public support. If the recent senseless eructations from the belly of the Amtrak beast have taught us anything, it is that something is rotten in Denmark. I saw no sign of utter daftness in the four fine men I met with yesterday, so I suspect that getting to the root of Amtrak’s problems will involve seeing what has heretofore gone unseen behind closed doors.
I call on Amtrak to conduct its business under the watch of the public eye, much as government-operated metropolitan transit agencies invite public participation in their collective thought and planning. Like I said, the four men I met yesterday don’t seem to be nuts, so it’s time to see who the other men behind the curtain are.
The pelting will begin on Monday.