On Thursday, the committee met to review more than 40 state contracts. These include (1.) an Alabama Medicaid Agency contract for $500,000 with a company to investigate and recover over-payment, with 70 percent of the cost coming from federal funds; (2.) two contracts to assess damages from the deepwater Horizon oil spill, funded by BP; and (3.) a contract for a one-year study to assess the cost and potential ridership of the restoration of passenger-train service between Birmingham and Montgomery.
This latter review — paid for by the Federal Railroad Administration and by Birmingham, Montgomery and Montgomery County — comes at a time when over-the-road transportation costs are rising.
The decline of passenger-rail service has been one of the most unfortunate byproducts of the American infatuation with the automobile and the way government has encouraged this with subsidies and highway construction. Today there is a generation of Americans who have never ridden on a train. In Alabama, the only passenger route through the state is the Crescent line that runs from New York to New Orleans, with stops in Anniston, Birmingham and Tuscaloosa.
Perhaps that service is all Alabamians want — or need. We hope not.
Anyone who has traveled in other countries — countries with high-speed, efficient rail service — knows that rail travel can be cheap, fast and convenient. All it takes is the incentive to use it.
The very incentives that keep people riding the rails elsewhere are the critical components — cost, speed and convenience. If this study shows that passenger service between Birmingham and Montgomery can provide these things, and if the study also focuses on what happens to a passenger when they arrive — how they get to their hotel or home, for instance — there is good reason to believe that, in time, people will take advantage of this service.
Passenger-rail travel, like freight-rail travel, is safe, uses less fuel and keeps our national network of railroads functioning. Recreational resources like the Chief Ladiga Trail are wonderful for those who use them, but the rails-to-trails program reminds us of what we have lost.
If this study shows that we can return to riding the rails, we should.