Badgers, Buses and Trains: Why We Need a National Rail
By Billy Wharton
August 26, 2010
Mention the name Amtrak and you might be on the
receiving end of some unexpected hostility. Tales of
delays or strange transfers or even outright anger at
high prices will likely ensue. In fact, for most people
in America, the idea of a national rail system is a
myth and like any good tall tale, everyone has a story.
I picked up my own after a recent trip to Madison,
My task was simple. Figure out a way to travel from
Madison to Milwaukee. It is a 79-mile straight shot
between the two cities. My traveling companion figured
out a solution instantly using local sources. "Take the
Badger Bus," people told us dispassionately. Badger is
a private bus company that operates a fleet of buses
notable only for the cartoon picture of a badger
splashed across the side. $20 bucks for the trip.
This, of course, was not enough for me. Buses spew out
fossil fuels, are stuffy and seem like the least
efficient way to move people from place to place.
Unlike the buses I had encountered during a trip to
Mexico that feature drinks, food and a movie, American
buses are dreary utilitarian places - cartoon badger
aside. So, of course, Amtrak came to mind.
After a bit of wrangling about my "ridiculousness," we
plugged in our info into the Amtrak webpage. Out came
the news. The trip would cost $98 per person. Worse
yet, we would have to first take a bus 151 miles south
to Chicago before boarding an Amtrak train to
Milwaukee. There was no direct train access between
Madison and Milwaukee.
Obviously, I boarded a Badger Bus headed to Milwaukee
the next morning, dashed expectations in hand. But, my
search revealed a barely hidden truth - we don't
actually have a national rail system. Despite throwing
tens of billions of dollars in public funds at Amtrak
since its organization in 1971, the train system is an
inefficient, poorly organized, barely coherent mess.
While travelers in places like Europe and Japan enjoy
high-speed rail travel, Americans are forced into a
continued dependence on fossil fuel. Amtrak trips are
either exorbitantly priced or entirely illogical such
as the jaunt from Madison to Chicago to Milwaukee would
have been. Even when travelers catch a bit of luck and
get a discount price and a direct route, there is no
guarantee of service since Amtrak has to share tracks
with freight cars. Since commerce is king in American
capitalism, Amtrak departure and arrival times are more
like a best guess than a schedule.
And even if all this goes well, rail passengers still
have to rely on a sorely outdated train grid. New York
City bound passengers found this out the hard way
recently when a rain-soaked train control tower
containing equipment made in 1913 exploded, resulting
in the suspension of travel along the Northeast
corridor. Just another day of delays for rail
passengers and even more motive to head out by car or
The solution to my Madison problem is exceedingly
simple. Make a serious national commitment to create
high-speed rail service. Not a public-private joint
venture or an outsourced pastiche of private lines, but
a national public rail service. If given the choice
between the green efficient trains and pollution
belching buses, I am sure millions of Americans would
hit the rails. Just to make it a bit more attractive we
might even slap a cartoon badger on the side.
Billy Wharton is a writer and activist whose articles
have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC
Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine.
He can be reached at [log in to unmask]
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