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Weekly Features
Letter from New York
Mathew Tombers is Managing Director of Intermat, Inc., ( a television company which executive produces programs and consults with industry companies on a variety of issues. Intermat, Inc. is currently involved in approximately thirty hours of television in various stages for a variety of networks. He is one of the Executive Producers of OFF TO WAR, a ten hour series for Discovery Times and for a one hour on international adoptions for Discovery Health. He has consulted a variety of companies, including Ted Turner Documentaries, WETA, Betelgeuse Productions, and Creation Films, Lou Reda Productions as well as many others.

May 16, 2005

Riding the Rails…

As anyone who follows my adventures, you will know I now spend as much time on the rails as I used to spend crisscrossing the country by air. I have “Select Status” in Amtrak’s Membership Rewards Program which means I have traveled at least 10,000 miles by train in the past twelve months.

As I write this, I am riding the rails. Yesterday morning I took the train from New York to DC and am now on the way back. On Monday, I took the train from Hudson to New York. Friday I will take it back to Hudson. Next week I will do virtually the same thing.

As I got on the train in Hudson, I found that flyers have been stuck on the walls of the train station there [the oldest working train station in the country] exhorting one and all to get out pen and paper to contact our Senators and Congressmen to save Amtrak.

The flyers pointed out the devastating consequences to New York if Amtrak should disappear. Now, why would Amtrak disappear?

Well, the Bush Administration in its current budget has allocated zero dollars to Amtrak. Zero, none, nada, zilch…

I am aware that Amtrak is a flawed organization – how could it not be? It was born from a variety of compromises and needs. However, particularly since I have been on the East Coast these last five years I am aware of the importance of rail transportation. To lose Amtrak would strand a good body of individuals in Hudson who work in New York City and commute in everyday. To me, it seems like a long commute but there are those who do it, Monday through Friday.

They do it because one has to move that far beyond New York [two hours] to find affordable housing. And Amtrak is what makes it possible. It also makes a great difference in getting to and from DC – or up to Boston. It is a time and cost effective alternative.

Yesterday, in the Financial Times of London, I read an interesting article – as traffic jams in the US have increased we are now wasting approximately $63.4 BILLION dollars worth of gasoline idling in traffic jams. That doesn’t count the cost of the pollution and its side effects. That’s about 200 bucks worth of gas wasted for every man, woman and child in the U.S.

It is an amazing statistic which has staggered me – and I am wondering why it is that I read it in the Financial Times of LONDON?

I certainly have better things I could do with $200. Don’t you? Beyond that, it raises the issue of what planning we are doing to alleviate this situation. This all came from figures developed over two years ago so it probably is just worse now. And more expensive.

As I have been riding the rails, a pall has come across the people who ride it on a regular basis. The crews I see regularly from Hudson to New York are all worried. Some of them have been with the railroad since Amtrak was launched more than two decades ago. They are wondering what will happen to their lives and livelihood.

Passengers are wondering what they are going to do.

I am.

Across from me as I write this is a group of people in the café car of the New York bound train extolling the virtues of train travel, even with the current dysfunction of the Acela.

The Acela is an example of the flaws. It is sidelined indefinitely due to unforeseen brake problems. But despite those flaws we need to find ways to make rails work better for the country. Los Angeles is benefiting from light rail. The entire New York metro is fed by the rails of Amtrak and the MTA. If we creatively redesigned the rail system of the country how much of that wasted gas could stay in the tanks? How much would our lungs benefit from the pollution reduction?

Amtrak might not be the answer but rail is an integral part of the transportation solution for the United States and the entire puzzle needs to be addressed with a magnificent seriousness.