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A conservative sides with 'Amtrak Joe' on train travel

A conservative sides with 'Amtrak Joe' on train travel
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Back in the day, it felt as if I lived on airplanes, especially during my time at the Pentagon. Unfortunately, those collective hundreds of hours may have contributed to pressure-related issues in my ears. After experiencing hearing loss and severe balance issues, which led to multiple visits to specialists along the East Coast, it was determined that I should avoid flying to be on the safe side.

That advice taken — especially after temporarily losing my hearing again by simply going up to the 60th floor of a New York City skyscraper — I have not boarded an airplane in 15 years. Because of that, those who knew I loved to travel thought I would be miserable.

But it’s just the opposite. I rediscovered the joy, camaraderie and mental relaxation of train travel, here in the United States and across Europe. 

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In the late 1980s when I worked in the White House, I took Amtrak often between Washington and New York City, a route that makes a stop in Wilmington, Del. That’s the city where, on weekdays, one of Amtrak’s most famous and loyal customersPresident BidenJoe BidenKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' US officials testify on domestic terrorism in wake of Capitol attack MORE, then a U.S. senator — would embark from every morning and return to every evening to be with his family.  

More than a few times I found myself sitting opposite from Biden on the train. He was always incredibly courteous and friendly to the Amtrak staff, and was even kind enough to strike up a conversation with me on one trip.

Politics aside, I was always impressed that Biden — after experiencing heart-wrenching personal tragedy years earlier — had decided that instead of uprooting his young family from Delaware to D.C., he would commute back and forth daily via Amtrak. 

While the president and I disagree on some policy issues, I strongly support him when it comes to expanding and improving train service for our nation. Such service is critically important to millions of underserved Americans.     

Since I stopped flying, I have taken every major Amtrak long-distance route multiple times, sometimes choosing coach seating and sometimes a sleeper compartment. From Washington to Los Angeles, Chicago to Austin, New York to Miami — along the way, most of what I have experienced was incredibly positive. But some experiences, unfortunately, were shockingly negative.  

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Since its creation in May 1971, Amtrak in many ways has become a hot mess. Much of that mess was out of their control. Some of it was directly attributable to a lack of Amtrak leadership and supervision of employees.

For me, the best part of an Amtrak trip is conversing with the employees and my fellow passengers. As one who grew up on “the wrong side of the tracks,” it has always bothered me that so many politicians who decide the fate of Amtrak trains and routes don’t realize that, on any given route, many of the passengers come from very meager means.    

For a large number of these riders, Amtrak service truly is essential and to lose train service could prove devastating. For that reason and more, I wish more members of Congress would ride some Amtrak long-distance trains and get to know the people they might harm through decisions or actions based upon incomplete information.   

Over the years I have become friends with a number of Amtrak employees. Most are incredibly dedicated and care about the passengers. But apparently a few are in it for themselves. In 2012, the New York Times reported that over the previous decade, Amtrak lost $834 million on food because of employee theft, waste and lack of supervision. Let that number sink in for a moment: Amtrak lost almost a billion dollars of taxpayer-subsidized food in 10 years.

I got to experience some of that up close on a trip from Fort Lauderdale to D.C. Soon after boarding the train, I went to the dining car and sat opposite a businessman. He attempted to order a steak dinner but was informed that the kitchen had “run out.” When he asked how they could possibly have no steak when the train had been restocked in Miami and we were only in Fort Lauderdale, the server whispered, “One of the employees just off-loaded the steaks to a friend for cash.”  

How much has Amtrak “lost” in the nine years since that New York Times story? A billion dollars here and a billion dollars there of taxpayer-subsidized money adds up fast, especially with zero accountability.    

Within his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, “Amtrak Joe” has rightfully tried to protect and enhance Amtrak to the tune of $80 billion. As a White House spokesperson emphasized: “The president believes Americans deserve world-class passenger rail.”

Indeed they do. But to achieve that “world-class passenger rail,” President Biden also should insist on world-class supervision of Amtrak employees to stop the millions of dollars mysteriously “lost” each year and ensure that Amtrak is fully accountable to the American people.

Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.