November 9, 2001
CHICAGO (Nov. 9)–UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo was among a select group of rail activists invited by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to appear with him at an October 28 news conference calling for increased Congressional funding for Amtrak passenger and property security.
The Sunday afternoon news conference, which was attended by all of the major media, was carried later that day on most Chicago television news broadcasts.
Before delivering a brief statement to the media, Durbin called Szabo and the activists into a private meeting where he urged them to enlist their members in supporting Congressional legislation that would provide Amtrak with $1.3 billion in supplemental funding.
Most of money would be used to update the underwater tunnels that carry Amtrak and commuter trains into New York’s Pennsylvania Station. The tunnels, opened in 1910, lack modern firefighting, flood-control and evacuation technology. Passengers fleeing a stranded train can exit only in single file via an 11-story spiral staircase.
Some of the proposed funding would be used outside the New York area, however. Amtrak wants to hire an additional 300-plus police officers nationwide to make sure firearms and explosives are not brought aboard trains or into stations and to ensure that intruders cannot penetrate train-makeup yards, maintenance shops or facilities where equipment and foodstuffs are stored.
“Sen. Durbin understands the security situation completely,” Szabo said. “It was clear from what he said during the meeting that his railroad background has given him a thorough grasp of just what it takes to secure the perimeter of a railroad yard, as well as keep a railroad station under surveillance so that a would-be terrorist does not endanger a train, its passengers or its crew. The Senator, his two brothers, and both his parents worked for the old New York Central system in East St. Louis. I don’t think we’ve ever had a member of the U.S. Senate with his depth of understanding and experience in the industry.”
Although the news conference was called largely to address the post-September 11 security situation, Szabo said Sen. Durbin used the private meeting that preceded the news conference to keep the activists focused on passing the High Speed Rail Investment Act, known in the Senate as S.250.
“The Senator asked all of us to redouble our efforts to contact legislators and ask them to support and move this vital legislation,” Szabo said. “He was candid about its chances: The Senate has a clear majority of 57 members who support it, but the Republicans who control the House are still skeptical about passenger trains and need to hear more pro-high-speed-rail outreach from their constituents.”
Szabo that in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, support already is emerging.
“Considering how difficult and cumbersome flying has become since September 11, I think that we are going to see increasing support for building high-speed passenger-train infrastructure between large cities located 200-400 miles apart,” he said. “Once the trains start running at 110 miles per hour and offering eight or ten round trips per day, the train becomes more attractive than the plane or car.”