Why America Needs Trains

Over the course of my career, my 7,000 round trips on Amtrak have provided me with an understanding of -- and a respect for -- the role of rail travel in our society and our economy.
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One of the Capitol Hill newspapers estimated that I've taken more than 7,000 round trips on Amtrak over the course of my career. But the one I made on Jan. 17, 2009 was a bit different. When I got there, there were 8,000 people standing in the freezing cold. And I wasn't racing to reach the 7:46 a.m. Metroliner (later, the Acela) that I had taken thousands of times before.

I was meeting up with the train that would carry President Obama and me to our inauguration.

That day, Gregg Weaver, a conductor who started riding Amtrak the same year I did--1972--introduced me to the crowd. As Gregg spoke, it struck me that over the years, Amtrak provided me with more than a way to get to Washington to serve the people of Delaware every morning and a way to get home to my family each night. It has provided me another family entirely--a community of dedicated professionals who have shared the milestones in my life, and who have allowed me to share the milestones in theirs.

And it has provided me with one thing more, an understanding of--and a respect for--the role of rail travel in our society and our economy.

Though I don't get to ride the train nearly as much anymore, those were the lessons I brought with me on that final trip to Washington as a United States Senator.

I began making the 110-mile commute shortly after I was sworn in as a Senator. It was the only way that I could have been a Senator at all. I had to be able to get home to spend evenings with my two sons after we lost their mother and sister in an auto accident a month earlier.

Since then, on those many trips down to Washington, I got into a routine. From Wilmington to Baltimore I'd read the papers and make phone calls. At Baltimore, I'd start preparing for that day's hearings, amending my opening statement or going through the list of witnesses. And by the time I arrived in D.C., I'd be ready to jump right in.

Getting home was sometimes a sprint, too. One year, on my birthday, my daughter had planned a party for me. She really wanted to give me a gift and blow out candles. Senator Bob Dole was the Majority Leader at the time, and we were voting that night. I told him that I really had to be home for my daughter, which meant that I needed to catch the 5:54 p.m. train. Senator Dole backed up the votes until 9 p.m. I boarded the train and, in Wilmington, my daughter was standing there on the middle platform. She and my wife sang "Happy Birthday," I blew out the candle, took a piece of cake, opened her gift, gave her a kiss, and caught the 7:23 p.m. going south--and managed to be there for the 9 p.m. vote.

Amtrak doesn't just carry us from one place to another--it makes things possible that otherwise wouldn't be. For 36 years, I was able to make most of those birthday parties, to get home to read bedtime stories, to cheer for my children at their soccer games. Simply put, Amtrak gave me--and countless other Americans--more time with my family. That's worth immeasurably more to me than the fare printed on the ticket.

When I took the train every night--and I still do whenever possible--I always noticed the lights on in the houses flickering in the passing neighborhoods, dotting the landscape speeding by my window. Moms and dads were at their kitchen table, talking after they put their kids to bed. Like Americans everywhere, they were asking questions as profound as they are ordinary: Should Mom move in with us now that Dad is gone? How are we going to pay the heating bills? Did you hear the company may be cutting our health care? Now that we owe more on the house than it's worth, how are we going to send the kids to college? How are we going be able to retire?

I would look out the window and hear their questions, feel their pain. And every time I made that trip, it would inspire me to get up the next day, head back down to Washington, and give them the answers they're looking for. Those moments looking out the window and seeing the lights on, they told me things that the briefing folders in front of me never could. They gave color and meaning to the problems I've spent my career trying to solve. They reminded me why I made that trip back and forth 7,000 times.

But my support for rail travel goes beyond the emotional connection. With delays at our airports and congestion on our roads becoming increasingly ubiquitous, volatile fuel prices, increased environmental awareness, and a need for transportation links between growing communities, rail travel is more important to America than ever before.

Support for Amtrak must be strong--not because it is a cherished American institution, which it is--but because it is a powerful and indispensable way to carry us all into a leaner, cleaner, greener 21st century.

Consider that if you shut down Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, it is estimated that to compensate for the loss, you'd have to add seven new lanes of highway to Interstate 95. When you consider that it costs an average of $30 million for one linear mile of one lane of highway, you see what a sound investment rail travel is. And that's before you factor in the environmental benefits of keeping millions and millions of cars off the road.

In 1830, the first steam-engine locomotive, the Tom Thumb, graced America's railways. Its first run was a rickety 13-mile trek from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills, Md., but it became much more than that. It marked the beginning of a new journey, heading straight into a better, more imaginative American future.

We are on a similar journey now. We are at the dawn of a new age, where the very best ideas of today will shape our tomorrow, where renewable clean energy and new transportation systems and more efficient technology will revolutionize American life the way the Tom Thumb did some 180 years ago.

On Jan. 20, 2009, pulling out of the Wilmington train station, embarking on that same short trip I made thousands of times before, I thought again about the journey America was about to take as a nation. And I saw our future the same way I always did: looking out Amtrak's windows.

This article first appeared in Arrive Magazine Jan-Feb 2010.

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