People in the West like their trains, or so E.M. Frimbo, The New Yorker magazine's great rail writer, liked to say. But Frimbo believed that Westerners lost track of what happened to so many railroad lines: We spent the last half of the 19th century building them up, then spent most of the 20th century ripping them out. He warned that there would always be a cry to make passenger trains "pay for themselves." He was right, as that all too often has meant concentrating on trains on the East Coast, where most of the riders live.
You can see Frimbo's worst fears at work this year in the U.S. House of Representatives. It's not just starving the budget of Amtrak, it's the lawmakers' all-too-common belief that Western trains can't ever break even. Also unfortunate is the fact that Amtrak's board is made up so heavily of East Coast businessmen. This year, the board proposed a budget putting what little money there is for new equipment solely into the high-speed fleet.
Of course, high-speed trains, especially between Washington, D.C., and Boston, are vital to the nation, but what about the rest of us? What about little towns like La Junta, Colo., or Raton, N.M., or Cut Bank, Mont.? These are places the Amtrak board has probably never heard of, but all of them depend on trains. I hate to think of the day when people walk into the newly renovated Union Station in Denver and find the long-distance trains gone. As Frimbo warned, that's a possibility if we continue to think only of the bottom line instead of serving the public. The wonderful recent $15 million grant for rail helps save a line through Kansas and Colorado and on into New Mexico, but it doesn't change the basic problem of starving Amtrak's budget.
Some of this starving of Amtrak is ideological. Though there are plenty of Republican Amtrak supporters, unfortunately, it's the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives that harps on funding trains as "socialism." Yet the truth is that you spend 94 percent of your rail passenger ticket paying your own freight. That's far higher than the dollar you spend on an airplane fare or riding the interstate highway system. If Frimbo were still alive, he'd snort, "Socialism indeed!"
Frimbo worried that rail infrastructure underfunding would inevitably lead to disasters. We saw that this May in Philadelphia, when the country's worst train crash in 40 years killed six people. House Speaker John Boehner insisted the rail crash had nothing to do with Amtrak's underfunding. That was a moment of hypocrisy. The line has long needed positive train control braking installed and was supposed to get it by the end of summer. Another safety feature my old rail union argued for is putting two workers in the cab. The lone operator at the head end of a high-speed train had a great record, but something happened to him as he came into that curve.
Frimbo's all-aboard optimism came though when he occasionally served as an unpaid consultant for Amtrak. He wrote that Amtrak could gain ridership in the West by offering what rail travel has always offered: comfort. You don't have to tell that to the young family I talked to recently. They'd ridden coach from Sacramento, Calif., to Grand Junction, Colo., prepared with games, snacks and dining car menus. They even had their own pillows. They enjoyed the experience and actually got quite a bit of sleep. They said they'll do it again just for the easy ride.
A buddy and I had a little E.M. Frimbo memorial camping trip up Cumbres Pass out of Antonito, Colo., not long ago. Once a Cumbres and Toltec freight had cleared off the tracks and the coal smoke was down, we walked the line. There's a little metal plaque to Frimbo—his ashes are long gone—on a railroad tie at the highest passenger rail in the Lower 48 states. What a rail writer he was, boasting that he travelled 3,748,674.3 miles by passenger train! My friend and I drank white Russians—Frimbo's favorite drink—by our tents that night and vowed to keep up Frimbo's fight for our passenger trains in the West. I hope we haven't boarded the last one.
Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives near the Continental Divide in Colorado.