A full decade ago, passenger train service on the Oregon side of the Columbia River was halted due to budget troubles besetting Amtrak, the nationwide rail carrier formed when private railroads got out of the passenger business.
The train, known as The Pioneer, traveled from Portland to Chicago via La Grande, Ore., Salt Lake City, Utah, and Boise, Idaho. The cutback had a direct impact on the Columbia River Gorge: It ended arrivals and departures by train to important local cities including Hood River and The Dalles.
So it comes as a bit of a surprise to see that a bill that would restore Amtrak service to the south shore of the Columbia is now working its way through Congress.
Part of the Amtrak bill under consideration calls for a "one-time evaluation ... to determine whether a level of passenger demand exists ... to reinstate the entire Pioneer route service or segments of the service."
It's a good move.
We are in an era where the supply of fossil fuels is tight and prices are sky high, and that is one good reason we as a society need to create more -- not fewer -- alternatives to driving the personal automobile. Further, burning fossil fuels is, by most accounts, contributing to the dangerous global warming phenomenon, and that is another strong reason to offer transportation options that can carry more people while burning much less fuel.
It's also obvious to anyone who travels that the nation's airline industry is in disfavor with the public over lengthy delays, security measures that can be confusing and overbearing, lost luggage, crowded skies, inadequate food service, and long lines for check-ins, to name a few.
And with the cost of gasoline high and going higher, traveling long distances by car is increasingly out of reach as a realistic option for many Americans.
We strongly disagree with those who contend that passenger rail is a "luxury" we cannot afford. The opposite is true. It's an essential way to travel most countries around the world have embraced, and it works. Tragically, in the United States, rail service has been all but ignored by our government leaders, who continue to lavish billions on the airline industry and the interstate highway system while leaving Amtrak essentially out in the cold. The political bias against rail travel in this country is unfortunate, to put it mildly.
Those who say there is little demand for rail travel don't know what they are talking about. Amtrak ridership has risen for five straight years, and set a record in fiscal year 2007 by moving 25.8 million passengers -- 1.5 million more people than were served in fiscal year 2006. The daily Amtrak ridership averages 69,000 people. And all this with a patchwork, bandaged up system that is woefully underfunded.
Just imagine what could be achieved with a more realistic level of funding for rail equipment and infrastructure upgrading.
This bill is good news, and we urge our elected representatives to support it. Our nation badly needs travel alternatives -- not just the addition of another lane or two to the nearest highway.