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Congress is disinvesting in our common good

WASHINGTON – The passenger train dispatchers in today’s railroad stations are all said to be descended from one in Albany, N.Y. He wore a navy blue blouse with gold buttons, and a smart blue cap with a gold band around the brow. This one official – I never learned his name – would call out arrivals and departures through a megaphone.

“The Stuyvesant, Number one-four-one, leaving for Buffalo, at 11:22 on track,” a long pause, “track four.” Then, “the Rensselaer, Number 26, departing for Yonkers and New York, at 11:45 on track,” another pause, “track six.”

Behind him was a giant chalkboard listing all the trains. He managed the transactions by hand. There was never any confusion.

Decades later comes Amtrak and the frantically busy Northeast Corridor. Today’s dispatcher is invisible and comparably indifferent.

There’s often a disconnect between what the electronic screen says and what he says about departure times and track numbers.

Click, goes the public address. “Baw-baw-baw, de-baw, train one- seven-one will be delayed [indecipherable] minutes, but arriving on track two, de-bip, de-bob.”

“What did he say?” cried out a woman on crutches. A companion said, “I think it was track two, but the screen says track three.”

This exchange is, in reality, in Stamford, Conn., the Monday after Easter. Commuter trains and Amtraks share the place. A train passes through every seven minutes. Amtrak employs a single, grievously harassed human there to sell tickets, deal with customer concerns and physically help disabled passengers to their trains.

One disabled passenger, who had been promised assistance, limped after his train unaided down the elevator to the announced track two. Arriving, he found passengers scrambling up the escalators and stairs to find track three. It had been suddenly changed. The heroic Amtrak clerk, in the meantime, had closed her window with people waiting in line to find the handicapped passenger on track three. She held the train for at least five minutes for the man to board.

This clerk in the yellow jacket had the grace to smile. The waiting conductor said, “We’re here to serve you.”

The train, sold out, had 10 passenger cars.

Bravo performances from employees whose pay has been cut or frozen, whose unions are threatened and whose budgets are butchered by aides to Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman, who earns at least $350,000 a year – more than the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

This is your federally chartered national railroad passenger service. Amtrak’s executives flip the bird at the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed 25 years ago.

There is virtually no readily available help for disabled people, many of whom are forced to take Amtrak because of age, or vision problems. For them, it’s either Amtrak or stay home.

But the problems of this one disabled passenger are small potatoes compared with what has happened to the rest of this nation’s infrastructure because of Republican tea party Luddites. Congress is militantly disinvesting in our common good. As an Amtrak passenger, you can see it and hear it: rail cars whose average age is 20 years; car wheels that go bump, warning of an impending accident; track beds allowed to slowly rot.

There are Republican members of Congress who look on Amtrak as communistic. This radical core sees federal aid to highways, and even the National Weather Service, the same way. Congress can’t seem to do enough to help airlines merge, and allow bigger, more dangerous trucks on the Interstate. The airlines and truckers employ platoons of lobbyists. The extreme right has found a way to make the public pay for highways it once owned, charging $8 to drive 18 miles on the Interstate.