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— by Pat Foran, Editor
That the near-term future of Amtrak, which marked its 40th anniversary on May 1, is uncertain is hardly news. Uncertainty, to some degree, has always reigned at the national intercity passenger railroad, as Associate Editor Angela Cotey notes in this month's cover story. That could account for what appears to be a modicum of matter-of-fact confidence emanating from the current Amtrak leadership team.
For one thing, they've been here before. And even if Congress doesn't do the right thing ("right" as Amtrak leaders define it) on the funding front, Hill dwellers hear and sometimes listen to the voice of the riding public. As Vice President of High Speed Rail Al Engel told Cotey: "It's tough to get there and painful to watch the process, but in the end, usually America has come through with the right decisions."
Given the "stop spending" sentiment that colors many Hill conversations these days, rail advocates certainly feel a few uncertainty pangs. The good news? Hill dwellers are "very appreciative of rail and the supply industry — they love rail," said Nicole Brewin, assistant vice president of the Railway Supply Institute, during the Q&A portion of a "Legislation Affecting Rail Supply" webcast that was part of our Freight Car & Locomotive Virtual Conference & Expo, held April 27. That said: Although freight rail registers "very high" with Congressfolk, passenger rail rates "not so high" at the moment, at least for some of the Republican members, Brewin told show attendees.
"We have an uphill battle that we're going to face regarding intercity passenger rail, transit and emerging high-speed rail corridors with this freshman class," she said. "They are dedicated to cutting and, unfortunately, what sticks out right now like a sore thumb is the high-speed program."
And even though federal lawmakers "love" freight rail, they won't necessarily express it the way railroaders hope. In February, the Safe & Efficient Transportation Act (SETA), which would enable states to increase truck weight limits on interstate highways, was reintroduced in the House. Current truck weight limits, which were established in 1982, are set at 80,000 pounds. A bipartisan bill, SETA would enable states to increase the limit to 97,000 pounds.
"The truck-size-and-weight lobby is making more headway than they have in the past, and that's a little bit concerning to us," Brewin said.
Measures to keep the maximum truck weight and length limits as they are also have been offered up. On May 3, the Safe Highways and Infrastructure Preservation Act of 2011 was introduced in the Senate. In April, a similar bill was introduced in the House.
In the meantime, the rail lobby will continue to send the rail message to the appropriate appropriations folks, as well as leadership in both houses of Congress.
Want to send your own message to lawmakers about Amtrak, high-speed rail, truck size and weight, or any other issue you'd like to be a little less uncertain about? Be a lobbyist for a day (or even a fly-on-the-wall listener) at Railroad Day on Capitol Hill, which will be held July 14. For more information, check out the "Meetings & Seminars" tab on the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association's website (www.aslrra.org).
The American Association of Railroad Superintendents (AARS) is seeking applicants for its annual Frank J. Richter Scholarship. Through the program, AARS awards $1,000 scholarships to promising full-time undergraduate or graduate students. Co-founder of Progressive Railroading, Richter is a quintessential student of rail, as well as transportation as a whole.
AARS currently is seeking applications for the 2011-12 academic year. To be eligible for consideration, applicants must:
Applications, which must be postmarked no later than July 1, are available via the AARS website (www.railroadsuperintendents.org — see "AAR Scholarships") or via mail: AARS, P.O. Box 200, La Fox, IL 60147. Winners will be notified by Sept. 1.
For more information, call 331-643-3369.