Don’t Panic, but do Write!

by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President — In politics everyday is the silly season. Along with Amtrak, almost every government program is getting hit with major proposed budget cuts from the Bush Administration. Haven’t we seen this movie before? I think it is a good bet that Amtrak will get more money than the Bush Administration is proposing. But on the other had it is a good bet that Amtrak won’t get as much money as it wants. So the issue is what can you, RailPAC’s member do to protect Rail Passenger service? The answer is to write!

You can start by writing to your elected officials in Congress. But you don’t have to stop there. You have local officials at the city, county and state level. You can write them expressing your support of rail passenger service. If they hear from you, they are more likely to also tell Washington to protect the trains. But you can also write or email your local newspaper, radio or TV station. A good time to write is after they carry a story about rail passenger service.

At our RailPAC general meeting in Oakland on February 5th, RailPAC Director Richard Spotswood led an excellent discussion on the importance of writing to the editor of your local paper. Richard speaks from experience since he is columnist for his local paper. Newspaper editors love letters. Not only does this give them feedback from the readers, but the Letters to the Editor section to the paper is one of the more popular sections in most newspapers.

In our discussion about writing letters, we came to a consensus about three basic points. One, keep it short. Particularly in a letter to the editor, they don’t want a Doctoral dissertation. Most people won’t read a long letter. Second, stick to your point. This goes hand in hand with keeping your letter short. Trying to say too much will just confuse and bore most people. Stick to a basic theme and avoid digressions. Third, be polite. You can express strong opinions without being rude. That means avoid name calling and threats. An example of what NOT to write: You meathead! I’ll never buy your paper again . This also follows the other two points. Name calling and threats makes a letter too long and is a digression from the point you are trying to make.

What is the point? We need a National Rail Passenger service. Support for rail is weakened if we pit the haves against the have-nots. Cutting rail service hasn’t saved money. We need a growing system to bring in more revenues to cover more expenses. In the past the national rail system has taken the blame for Amtrak’s problems and been the victim of all attempts to save money. The facts are that in Amtrak’s budget, no more than $300 million dollars goes for train service outside the northeast. The long distance trains bring in almost half of Amtrak’s passenger revenue. Also, you can point out that the trains are far from being empty. Particularly the long distance trains have the highest load factors on Amtrak and suffer from a lack of equipment which prevents them from carrying more passengers.

You can also point out that much of the Amtrak budget doesn’t go towards passenger service. Amtrak has heavy debt payments both from the start up of the Acela trains and Amtrak’s experiment in carrying freight. Also much of Amtrak’s budget going towards the railroad retirement program, which would be in trouble if Amtrak were to fold. Also under current law Amtrak is liable in all accidents, even if it is not at fault It is to early to say what kind of changes we will see to Amtrak and the American passenger rail system. But it is important that we don’t lose additional routes or long distance trains, when they are actually the most productive trains in the system.

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