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Posted: December 29, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Fast track to nowhere

Last week I saw firsthand just how backwards and impoverished our passenger rail system in this country is when I took an Amtrak train from Atlanta to Charlottesville, Va., to attend a conference on climate change.
My train was supposed to depart from Atlanta at 8:21 p.m. last Wednesday, travel through the night and arrive in Charlottesville at 7:15 a.m. the next morning, well in time for the 9:45 a.m. start time of the conference.

However, I was not to depart from Atlanta until six hours later due to the derailment of a CSX freight train. As a result of the derailment, the passenger Crescent train didn't arrive in Charlottesville until mid-afternoon and I missed most of the first day of the conference.

That a simple train derailment would take six hours to remedy is mindboggling, considering that this is the United States - the most developed country in the world. Waiting in the early hours of Thursday morning for the train to arrive, I felt like I was living in the Third World again.

But even when I briefly lived in Egypt my junior year of college, I don't ever remember waiting for a train that long. And don't get me started about the trains in Europe. Remembering how pleasant, economical and fast it was to travel by train in the European Union made me want to bang my head against the back of my very hard and uncomfortable bench seat in the Amtrak station in the wee hours of the morning as I squirmed around, trying to find a comfortable way to while away the long hours before the Crescent train finally pulled into the station.

That six-hour train delay is emblematic of the way the federal government has consistently underfunded mass transit in this country. Congress finally approved new legislation this fall that will provide $12 billion in funding for Amtrak, which has seen record ridership this year as a result of high gasoline prices. Still, we are way behind the curve when it comes to updating our passenger rail system, which is comprised solely of Amtrak, to meet the needs of this century.

Just how far behind we are as a country in our understanding of just what the challenges will be this century was brought home to me at the conference in Charlottesville.

Surrounded by a large group of political science professors from some of the most prestigious universities in this country, along with current and former employees of the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, I was disappointed to see that the attendees, while obviously very concerned about climate change and all in agreement that federal action was needed to address it, didn't seem to be extremely concerned about the slow pace with which the governmental machinery is moving into place.

Attendees speculated that national legislation employing either a tax on carbon dioxide emissions or a carbon cap-and-trade system wouldn't be passed for another two years. I can only guess that the reason attendees weren't more concerned with the ponderous pace the government is moving in addressing climate change is because they remain woefully out of touch with the latest information coming from the scientific community that monitors things like the rate of sea level rise and the rate at which polar ice caps are melting.

Were they aware of these recent developments, which are occurring at an exponential rate and cannot be predicted, I don't doubt that they would be calling for a much more aggressive time line from President-elect Obama. I can only hope our new president is cognizant of the scientific realities on the ground because we certainly don't have another two years to fritter away on this.

Rachel Oswald is the senior reporter at The Covington News. She focuses on business and government and has a strong passion for environmental issues. She may be reached at roswald@covnews.com.

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