Amtrak is a National Asset - It Should be Used as Such
In view of FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina and the events of 9-11, our Federal government needs to expand the role of Amtrak as an integral part of our Homeland Security. Amtrak is ideal for conducting mass evacuations, moving National Guard troops, and providing billeting support to first responders and relieve agencies in the event of a major terrorist attack or catastrophic disaster.
The city of New Orleans had to evacuate tens of thousands of people to safety to include hospital patients, rest home residents and the remainder of the community who resided in harm's way. The President should have diverted the Amtrak trains that service New Orleans prior to the storm to support evacuation efforts. Amtrak could have handled this challenge with efficiency even though it would have been a severe demand on their equipment resources. Amtrak trains could have ferried evacuees to Houston far away from the storm's path far more efficiently then the convoy of over 500 buses did after the storm. Buses were not practical prior to the storm due to the gridlock that occurred on the highways. When the storm was over, Amtrak trains could have returned to disaster base camps and staging areas to provide billeting and meal service to FEMA's first responders and other relief agency personnel. More importantly, Amtrak could have been used to transport the thousands of National Guard troops that are being called from all across the nation. The majority of our military's air craft are supporting the war in Iraq and couldn't be diverted, and the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet was not mobilized.
We have witnessed two major catastrophic events that have taxed both the local and federal governments' ability to respond, the 9-11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina. The United States Government does not have the means to provide 100% security from Terrorist attack or prevention of catastrophic disasters such as an 8.0 earthquake or a Category 5 Hurricane. The most prudent means of ensuring public safety in the event of a massive terrorist attack or disaster is to have the ability to rapidly move national and local assets to the affected area. With the exception of Hurricanes the United States has not had to deal with a major catastrophic disaster or attack on its soil. The events of 9-11 were traumatic but did not overwhelm the community resources like Katrina has done.
During an emergency Amtrak can provide for two of the major services required during a disaster transportation and billeting. Amtrak has the ability to evacuate massive numbers of citizens, and to provide short term billeting to emergency personnel. State agencies usually respond by suggesting that they will use community mass transit assets which are extremely flexible provided the highways are not in gridlock due to mass evacuation. For emergency billeting they rely upon local hotels, and tents supplied by the National Guard. Some agencies understand that they will be competing for hotel space with disaster refugees, contractors and other governmental agencies and if the National Guard is deployed they will need their tents for their troops and the evacuation camps.
Some agencies have invested in trailers and converted RV or custom trucks which they store in motor pools. The fallacy of this approach is equipment that sits idle in motor pools deteriorates when not constantly operated and serviced. The other problem is the community has invested funds raised from their citizens into capital equipment that will not generate revenue or offset some of the cost of maintenance and storage. When equipment is stored even on state property it is taking up real estate that was removed from the tax base that could be used for a greater community purpose.
Communities should press to have their federal tax dollars invested into sleeping cars and coaches that could be used in intercity passenger service instead of trailer and converted RVs. Then they would have equipment capable of concurrently generating revenue, and meeting their homeland defense needs.
When determining the return on investment on passenger rail equipment congress and communities need to look at the total return on investment not just revenues generated per mile. Factors that are usually omitted in calculating return on investment include increase in sales revenue from travelers and tourist spending that otherwise would not have made the trip, savings on equipment storage of alternate types of emergency equipment, the reduction of emergency transportation contractors, and the ability to support special revenue generating events with mobile lodging and transportation.
Investing in additional sleeping cars is just one element of the capital improvements required to increase our preparedness. Support siding should be constructed with sewer, water and electrical power hookups that could support a consist for a prolong period of time. These sidings should be located in areas where a terrorist attack or a natural disaster would have the greatest impact. These areas tend to coincide with popular tourist areas or major travel destinations. The support sidings should be collocated if possible close to public camp grounds. Public camp grounds can be quickly converted into first responder base camps and evacuation centers, and could be supported by rail.
If the President is serious about Homeland Security and disaster response then he needs to take a serious look at increasing the amount of equipment and frequency of service that Amtrak provides to our cities. Amtrak is one of our greatest assets in the event of an emergency. We have rails in every major community, but we don't have air strips in every community that can land a 747 or a C-17.
David Kelly is an Officer in the National Guard and has served in several major disasters to include the 1992 LA Riots, the 1994 Northridge earthquake, along with many forest fires and floods. He has experience in community evacuations, and supporting multiple government emergency organizations.