March 19, 2002

CHICAGO (March 19)–The Midwest High Speed Rail Coalition has asked the UTU for help in alerting Congress to the danger of a massive shutdown of the nation’s long-distance passenger-train service.

In a March 6 letter to Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo, the Coalition’s executive director, Richard Harnish, urged UTU members to write letters to their congressmen and senators asking for additional operating assistance for the nation’s passenger trains as well as capital-investment dollars for infrastructure improvements that will permit faster and more frequent passenger train operations in the Midwest.

“If Amtrak does not receive its 2003 budget request of $1.2 billion, all overnight trains will stop operating on October 1st, 2002,” Harnish wrote. “If these routes are cut, the Midwest will lose 40% of its service.”

Illinois trains to be eliminated, all of them originating at Chicago, would include the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles, the Texas Eagle to San Antonio, the San Francisco Zephyr to Oakland, the Empire Builder to Portland and Seattle, the Capitol Limited and the Cardinal to Washington, DC; the City of New Orleans to New Orleans, the International to Toronto, the Lake Shore Limited and Three Rivers to New York, and the Pennsylvanian to Philadelphia.

To ensure that long-distance trains are kept running, Harnish urged rail advocates to pursue two basic strategies: Write letters to public officials, particularly Congress, and attend public events where concerned citizens can directly inform public officials about the urgent need for funding passenger rail service.

“The UTU wholeheartedly supports those strategies, and we urge our members to get involved immediately in reaching out to Congress,” said Szabo. “It worked in getting Railroad Retirement reform passed. It worked in getting the Illinois General Assembly to pass legislation making crew vans subject to state inspection. It can work again to save our passenger trains and lay the groundwork for a more modern high-speed rail network to come.”

Szabo said members should keep their letters short and focus on two basic demands.

“First, we need to make clear to our congressmen and senators that American passenger trains need to be funded as a national system. That means a complete, coast-to-coast network of connected routes–not merely short-distance corridors in the busier and more urbanized parts of the country. True, we need to develop high-speed rail corridors in areas where vehiclar and airport congestion are severe, but we have to link those corridors to the less populated interior of the country as well. A truncated system is no system at all.

“Second, we must make clear to Congress that passenger trains as well as passenger-rail infrastructure projects need the same kind of funding that our highways and airports get–a reliable, predictable, sustainable revenue stream that does not vary from year to year. We cannot build a modern passenger rail service if Amtrak and the states have to go back to Congress every year and fight for year-by-year appropriations. We need multi-year funding so planners can budget well into the future for equipment purchases and rehabilitation, track projects, and installation of high-tech signaling and grade-crossing protection technology. Without assurance of long-term funding, planners cannot plan and builders cannot build.”

Szabo urged that members keep their letters short and that they focus on the issues of preserving a national passenger-train network and providing it with a reliable, predictable, sustainable funding stream.

For guidelines in how to write a letter to a senator or congressman, Szabo recommended that members go to the national UTU website and click the “Washington Updates” link in the left-hand margin. This will display two additional links: “Contacting the Congress” allows the user to find the names and addresses of his or her congressman and two senators, while “Communicating with Congress” offers tips on how to structure your letter.

“I urge every member to join with our friends at the Midwest High Speed Rail Coalition in protesting these service cuts and getting Congress focused on funding a modern passenger rail system,” Szabo said. “But let’s do it now. Don’t lose a minute. Once a train is discontinued it will be very difficult to get it back.

“We have a dual mission,” he concluded: “First we have to save our nation’s skeletal system of national passenger train routes. Then we have to build out from there to a truly modern and effective national passenger rail service. I expect our members to be in the forefront of the fight.”