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Experts call for focus on high speed rail to create "travelports" and redefine air travel

(The following is a press release distributed by the Midwest High Speed Rail Coalition on March 17.)

CHICAGO -- On Saturday, March 15th, over 125 Midwestern residents gathered in Chicago to discuss possible solutions to the nation's crisis in intercity travel. Individuals traveled from as far away as Nebraska and Ohio to learn how a highly integrated network of airline, railroad and bus services can help Americans retain the high-levels of mobility that we have become accustomed to.

The keynote speaker was Scott Bernstein, President of the Center for Neighborhood Technology and Co-Director of Reconnecting America. Bernstein outlined the history and depth of the current intercity travel crisis. He then proposed a solution based upon the development of high-quality intercity railroad service and high-quality intercity bus service integrated closely with the aviation system.

"The time is right to remove the barriers that preclude effective links between air, rail and highway systems," Bernstein said. "An integrated system would benefit business and consumers alike."

Bernstein added that, in addition to the long understood travel and environmental advantages, fast, frequent, high-quality trains can play a pivotal role in reducing the financial burden facing the nation's airports. As the owners of America's airports, cities and counties will bear the brunt of the current airline fiscal crisis.

"The high levels of airport debt have put local government finances at risk," Bernstein continued. "They will need to find new ways of generating additional revenues at the airport."

By redefining airports as "travelports", airport owners can use rail and bus services to build volume and increase revenues, reducing the financial risk to local governments.

Anthony Perl, author of New Departures: Rethinking Rail Passenger Policy in the Twenty-First Century, described the federal policies that have kept the United States far behind the rest of the industrial world. He described Amtrak as a "policy blocker" that keeps policy makers from addressing the real issues surrounding intercity railroad development.

"We need a new paradigm," he said. "As long as the debate is limited to saving versus killing Amtrak, this country will never have the railroad service it needs."

Adding to the remarks made by Bernstein, Perl suggested an equal paradigm shift in the airline industry. "Airlines have two choices. They can continue to make across the board cuts -- an ever downward spiral -- or they can focus on high-volume, long distance routes and partner with railroads to build volume at hub airports."

Steve Schlickman, Coalition Manager for "Rail Advocates for Infrastructure Legislation," outlined Congressman William Lipinski's proposed federal railroad infrastructure program, a potential funding source for intercity railroad service. Schlickman added that "we need a comprehensive national program similar to the federal aviation program to upgrade rail infrastructure to ensure effective freight, passenger, and commuter rail service and create the intermodal connections that will best serve our competitive standing in a global economy."

Mike Blaszak, an attorney in private practice in railroad transportation issues, rounded off the conference by describing the "Cascades", a successful rail service operating in the Pacific Northwest. The states of Oregon and Washington have partnered with Amtrak to steadily upgrade rail service between Portland and Seattle. Travel time reductions, made possible by the introduction of high-performance trains, combined with more frequent departures, have resulted in a dramatic increase in patronage since the program began.

"The Pacific Northwest model can be applied directly to the Midwest," Blaszak stated. "It is just a matter of building a stronger commitment to the program."

Throughout the conference, attendees were reminded that individuals who want to enjoy the benefits of high-quality railroad travel should communicate loudly to their elected officials, both in Washington, DC and in their respective state capitals.

The Midwest High Speed Rail Coalition is a member-supported, non-profit grassroots organization promoting the development of faster, frequent, high-quality railroad service connecting over 200 Midwestern cities and airports. Our more than 1,000 members include business leaders, mayors and individuals, all of whom recognize the travel and economic development benefits of an expanded rail network.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

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