I love Amtrak, and Saturday, May 10 is the day to celebrate – it’s National Train Day 2014. Check it out: There are gala events in Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Amtrak deserves kudos for preserving America’s long-distance rail connection, despite determined efforts to kill the service over the last 30 years. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan wanted to zero out the Amtrak budget, according to the Republican platform:

Amtrak continues to be, for the taxpayers, an extremely expensive railroad … It is long past time for the federal government to get out of the way and allow private ventures to provide passenger service to the Northeast Corridor. The same holds true with regard to high-speed and intercity rail across the country.
They really believe this stuff, too, despite the fact that no public trains anywhere make money, and to expect them to is absurd. The first thing Jeb Bush did when he took over the Florida governor’s office was to stop a high-speed rail plan that had a lot of federal funding attached. Chris Christie did the same thing in New Jersey, killing a much-needed freight rail tunnel.

Amtrak carries 31 million people a year, and passenger service has grown 55 percent since 1997. The trains I ride are always crowded, and that’s a good thing because the more people that ride, the greener the train-versus-cars equation. Drive alone in a big car and you’re emitting five times the carbon dioxide per passenger of a train ride. When it comes to energy used per passenger, Amtrak trains are 16 percent more efficient than planes and 34 percent more efficient than cars.

Trains are convenient, too, especially if you live in the Boston-Washington corridor. For every airplane trip between Washington, D.C. and New York City, there are three trips taken on an Amtrak train. The problem is we’ve lost the ubiquitous rail connections and ridership we had around 1910. Since then, the tyranny of the private automobile has slashed rail track from 300,000 to 150,000 miles in the U.S., and even many existing Amtrak routes are threatened. Amtrak has 500 destinations, but it also has 15 heartland trains that aren't getting the ridership they used to – and they are losing $600 million a year. Four-fifths of Amtrak's passengers ride on just 26 mostly coastal routes.

I was trying to remember all this while cooling my heels earlier this week in the airy Philadelphia station. My regional train was 30, then 40 minutes late. On board, it was difficult to get a seat, the Wi-Fi was not working for most of the trip, the ride was so bone-shaking it was hard to work (in marked contrast to Europe’s much faster trains), and it was hard to discern any conceivable benefit I was getting from “business class” tickets. I got a free non-alcoholic drink!

Beautiful scenic Amtrak route

Photo courtesy of Amtrak

OK, Amtrak isn’t perfect. It isn’t even good sometimes. But the ride down to Philly on the Acela was trouble-free, and I got a lot done. A few days earlier I’d been stuck in a traffic gridlock in and around New York City, which reminded me once again why it’s crazy to drive in the five boroughs. I might gripe about Amtrak’s challenges, but I’m mighty glad it exists, and that’s something to celebrate on National Train Day.

Trains are ultra-romantic, of course, inspiring a million songs, and if you want to see some cool ones in action take a look here:

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