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Rails Essential for Future Growth

Today, our nation faces staggering transportation challenges. We must provide travelers with real choices when it comes to travel for business or to visit family, aside from paying high prices at the gas pump, sitting in traffic or waiting in long airport lines.

Catastrophes such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita taught us that we must be prepared to evacuate our citizens in an emergency and that our transportation systems must be up to the task.

We know we must reduce our dependence on foreign oil for our

own security. We also are concerned with protecting our environment for our future and stopping the dangerous trends set in motion by global climate change.

To help meet these challenges, we must develop a world-class intercity passenger rail system.

The rest of the world has come to this conclusion already. France, China, Spain, Germany, Taiwan, Italy, Korea and Japan have significantly invested in their rail systems, recognizing that industrial nations must connect major cities within 500 miles of each other by train.

Our states understand this, too, and await our leadership to help them build new rail lines and invest in improved train service. Our past half century was marked by the creation of the interstate highway system, but our future lies in rediscovering intercity passenger rail service.

When you look at it closely, the choice is obvious. On Sept. 11, with all flights grounded, trains carried people across the nation and safely home. In Louisiana, lack of adequate transportation stranded tens of thousands while Katrina tore up the Gulf Coast and flooded New Orleans. Just a short time later, Rita drove hundreds of thousands to gridlock on the highways while trying to escape the impending storm. During these and other crises, a healthy rail system could have helped evacuate thousands, especially our most vulnerable members of society.

These devastating experiences demonstrated how much America needed — and still needs — a strong national passenger rail system.

Right now, our highways are jammed with cars. In total, the average traveler wastes about 50 hours a year because of traffic congestion. In fact, Americans waste $65 billion each year in fuel just sitting in traffic — and that figure is based on 2005 gas prices.

And we know our skies are becoming jammed as more people and planes take to the air. Last year was the worst year for flight delays since 2000. One in four planes was late last year and it’s getting worse. For many travelers who fly from Washington, D.C., to the New York/New Jersey area, the airlines have simply thrown in the towel and actually schedule this 36-minute flight to take almost two hours. And these delays show no signs of easing up — nearly 5,000 new “very light jets” will add to this traffic over the next 10 years.

Between lines of cars on the highways and long lines at the airports, America’s travelers need and deserve another choice: a world-class passenger rail system.

Already, passenger rail is the travel option more and more Americans prefer. Last year, Amtrak saw nearly 25 million passengers, representing the fourth straight year of record ridership. And ridership already is up by 5 percent for the first half of this fiscal year compared to the same period last year. It is clear that where good rail service is available, people take the train.

Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and I are trying to make passenger rail a real option for America’s travelers — and a greater presence in our communities. We introduced the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act to turn our vision into reality.

Our bill would lay the tracks for a strong passenger rail network, one that will bring more balance to our national transportation system and provide us with real travel options.

Combined with a bond proposal that we hope the Senate Finance Committee will act on this year, our bill would invest $20 billion in America’s passenger rail system over the next six years.

It would fully fund Amtrak and allow it to upgrade its equipment, increase its security and improve already busy corridors in preparation for increasing travel demands.

And it would create a new intercity rail grant program to build passenger lines between more of our country’s towns and cities.

Just this year, the federal government will spend more than $39 billion building and repairing roads, more than $15 billion maintaining and expanding our airports — and a little more than $1 billion on the rail system.

In the meantime, many countries are making investments in their future by building new high-speed passenger rail lines. In fact, Vietnam’s planned $33 billion high-speed rail line costs more than the U.S. has spent on Amtrak in total since 1971.

America’s travelers deserve more options and convenience and less damage to our environment and less dependence on foreign oil. We need a transportation system with a vibrant, interconnected national passenger rail system.

As any traveler will tell you, a national passenger rail system is long overdue.

In April, a French train set the world speed record for conventional rail trains, flying through the French countryside at 357.2 miles per hour. Even before that, a passenger could take a train from Brussels to Paris — 200 miles in just 85 minutes — with comfort and ease. It’s time to bring American passenger rail up to that standard.

Our bill can make that happen. In the previous Congress, its broad appeal was demonstrated with bipartisan support — and a Senate vote of 93-6. I hope we can achieve that same level of bipartisanship again this Congress and build Amtrak into one of the great national rail systems in the world.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is the chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security.

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