Amtrak links the Hudson Valley to the rest of North America. From Hudson and Albany, you can take the train to western New York, to New York City and to Canada. And people do just that: Last year, Amtrak’s Empire Service alone brought more than a million riders through the Hudson Valley, carrying business travelers and vacationers alike. A recent poll suggests that residents of the North Hudson Valley and the Catskills want to keep it this way. Like Americans throughout a wide cross-section of the nation, residents of the 19th Congressional District want more, and safer, Amtrak service.
According to the poll prepared by Dean Mitchell of DFM Research in Minnesota on behalf of the Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Union (formerly the United Transportation Union), 87 percent of residents would like to see daily passenger rail service increase or remain the same. This support cuts across party lines: More than 80 percent of residents like the idea of additional train service to cities like Boston, Buffalo and Chicago, including 75 percent of self-identified conservatives.
In a time of partisan gridlock and ideological polarization, these numbers are striking. With Congress preparing to rewrite the law that governs Amtrak — which carries more than 30 million passengers each year — elected officials should listen to their constituents and support one of the nation’s most important transportation resources.
A thriving Empire Service doesn’t come for free, but not only do North Hudson Valley residents want Amtrak to stick around — they’re willing to pay for it. Nearly 75 percent of residents, including almost 7 out of 10 Republicans, support funding at the current level or greater, even when told that the federal government subsidizes Amtrak by more than $1 billion per year.
Many of the rail lines used by Amtrak are shared by freight trains, and residents of the Hudson Valley also want to ensure that the rails passing by their towns and homes are safe. One idea that is wildly unpopular in the Hudson Valley is the use of one-person train crews, an unsafe practice that received attention last year when a train operated by a single crew member leveled a town just outside Quebec and killed 47 people. An overwhelming 84 percent of Hudson Valley residents would vote in favor of proposed legislation requiring two-person crews on freight trains, including almost 8 out of 10 Republicans. These numbers are similar to the results of polls around the country, reflecting a strong nonpartisan desire to prioritize safety.
Given the broad public backing for more Amtrak service and two-person crews on freight trains, one might think that congressional approval of expanded passenger rail and increased safety measures was a foregone conclusion. But many other common-sense transportation proposals have languished in Congress over the past several years. While here in the Hudson Valley, Amtrak is supported by residents (and by the local congressional delegation), there is little guarantee that it will continue to get the support it needs in Washington, D.C.
Providing long-term funding to ensure a strong national rail network is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. Because we have failed to invest in a modern rail system, we are lagging behind much of the developed world. While we force Amtrak to use 50-year-old equipment, countries like China are introducing 300-mph train service.
During this dangerous era of austerity in Washington, too often policymakers have offered budgets that attempt to advance an old, tired and inaccurate idea that we can privatize and cut our way to a successful national passenger rail system. It’s time for Congress to listen to the American people and provide the long-term funding for the world-class Amtrak passenger rail network this country needs and deserves.
The preceding column by John Previsich and AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Edward Wytkind was published Aug. 6 by the Albany Times-Union.