This Kid Gets It. (And Writes Well, Too!)

What follows are excerpts from a column that appeared recently in The Daily Texan, the campus newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s by Colin Kalmbacher, a senior and a journalism major.

I took the train from Fort Worth to Austin on Monday.

It wasn’t close to being on time (three hours behind schedule), but my attitude was: “Why would it be?” Amtrak is under-funded, under-appreciated, under-used and yet still under the constant stress of operating a national rail network.

Amtrak is also frequently and fiercely under attack by critics such as John McCain who want to strip away all government operating subsidies and kill national passenger rail service.

Of course, the private airlines, upon which the people in McCain’s state of Arizona are dependent, are loaded up to their seat backs in government subsidies, and they would probably hemorrhage cash if they weren’t. But McCain doesn’t say a word. The airlines even received a hefty $15 billion bailout following the grounding of flights after Sept. 11, even after Amtrak proved its usefulness as a means of transportation. Go figure. …

On the short trip I took Monday, I saw that the populated areas near the tracks are as neglected as the national public transportation infrastructure itself, from the economic flop of Fort Worth’s Rail Market to the Austin Amtrak station, which is cordoned off and isolated.

Some sights along the way absolutely celebrate Texas: lush, green unspoiled field and forest, cows on the graze, expansive hills, plateaus lined with elm and oak, deposits of that clay that are as red as my neck after a day on top of my mom’s roof. Most of what you get is the good stuff – proof that God blessed Texas with His own hand. …

The fares are cheap enough for quick rides, but Amtrak’s lack of efficiency is pathetic. And there’s nothing powerful about a nation with a slipshod public transit system in a constant state of disrepair. There’s nothing more annoying than transit being eternally late because right of way must be given up to graffiti-covered Union Pacific freight trains.

Our country has a responsibility to provide an efficient, cheap national infrastructure that makes long-distance rail accessible and manageable for all Americans. This calls for a much bigger investment and the requisite regulation.

For the McCainites and small-government harpies who’ll whine about the “waste” of tax dollars to passenger rail, simply consider that no form of passenger transportation in the United States is self-sufficient – not driving your own ruggedly individual automobile across highways, and especially not air travel. …

It’s high time that America put our money where our myths are. This country is too beautiful and flawed to not be seen from the windows of a moving train.

Like Tom Waits sang, “There ain’t nothin’ sweeter than ridin’ the rails.”