NARP responds to Anderson Cooper's attack on trains

Written By Sean Jeans Gail

NARP President Ross Capon responds directly to a CNN report that questions the value of passenger rail investment through a skewed scope.

The “Keeping Them Honest” report on high-speed rail on the Jan. 25 edition of Anderson Cooper 360 presumed that investing in rail is wasteful if the trains do not go very fast and very often. Steadily rising ridership on most Amtrak services—not just the Northeast Corridor—over the past decade shows that American travelers do not agree.

CNN interviewed a well-known opponent of public spending on passenger rail (Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute) without interviewing one who supports it. It is not “balance” to interview an official from one state and ask them questions pertaining to that one state. I would have been happy to be interviewed for this story.

O’Toole is wrong to claim that all one needed to get a federal rail grant was a completed environmental statement. This was a competitive program. Applications far exceeded available funds. The Government Accountability Office said the Federal Railroad Administration “established a fair and objective approach for distributing these funds and substantially followed recommended [grant-making] practices used throughout the government.” GAO found that “an application’s technical review score was largely the basis for the selection process.”

Total planned investment in the Vermonter—including in Massachusetts and Connecticut—will reduce New York-St. Albans travel time by about two hours, far more than the 28 minutes you cited. Moreover, it is absurd to imply that extending the train north to a major destination like Montreal would not produce a big ridership increase. As for the present service, talk of putting Essex Junction passengers on a bus ignores the many intermediate stops the train serves.

As for California high speed rail, it takes time to build new rights-of-way in a democracy, unlike in China. California has awarded a contract, and construction is to begin this summer.

The federal High Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail program aims to make train travel more reliable and attractive for many Americans. When the program was launched, President Obama himself made clear that much of the money would upgrade “existing infrastructure.”

The $52.7 million that the federal government spent to upgrade the Vermonter route within Vermont is small by transportation standards. The Vermont Agency of Transportation received $241.2 million in Recovery Act money, most of which was spent on roads. The federal government spent $6 million in 2012 to repave about six miles of two-lane highway between Chelsea and Vershire, VT, and $6.3 million was spent to improve just one airport runway in Barre, VT. All of these infrastructure elements, including rail, will serve surrounding communities for decades.

Finally, walking along railroad tracks, as Mr. Griffin was seen doing, is trespassing and unsafe. Even on a lightly used railroad, one should always expect a train. Did Mr. Griffin check freight train movements before walking on the tracks? Do you think that viewers who might be tempted to follow his example would do so?

In future coverage of passenger train development, we urge you to consider the points raised in this letter and not to confine advocacy interviews to the Cato Institute. For further background on our views, see my testimony before the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. Links to the two recent hearings where I appeared can be found on NARP's website, here (which is on exactly the subject of your piece) and here (on a panel that also included Mr. O’Toole), and also archived on the Committee's web site.

--Ross Capon, President & CEO, National Association of Railroad Passengers