CNN’s alarming naiveté about the nation’s rail system

When you get annoyed with people you tell them to take a hike, or get outta town. In my case, I’d like to tell CNN to take a ride, in particular, a train ride; even more specific, a loooong train ride across America through big cities and small towns. I’d be happy to escort them.

Recent comments by CNN reporters such as Drew Griffin and David Clack have shown an alarming sense of naiveté about the value of our nation’s rail system and the need to improve and upgrade it. Griffin bashed the California high speed rail project last May on Anderson Cooper 360°, labeling it “a huge economic blunder that few [will] want to ride” and then took out his sword again in January, practicing his investigative journalism skills on the state of Vermont, criticizing federal funds that went to them as if they were for high speed rail when they were in fact, ready to use those funds and put people to work to make substantive improvements to the state’s rail system. Clack followed up with an article this week on the 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal, opening up an otherwise celebratory story on the history of this esteemed landmark, with this gem: “For the most part, train terminals are desperate places. They’re an unavoidable evil linking us to somewhere else….”

What Griffin and Clack don’t realize it that people actually do rely on trains to get around. Not only that, but train stations themselves, particularly when renovated and upgraded, serve to drive the economic development of re-imagined city centers in places large and small all over this country. They only need to check out San Jose, Calif.; Normal, Ill.; Memphis, Tenn.; or Brunswick, Maine; for recent examples.

I’ve seen this firsthand. In my hometown of Meridian, Miss., where I served as mayor, we rebuilt the historic Union Station. What was a dinosaur became a modern showpiece that served a region and drew $135 million in investment into what had been a dying downtown. Meridian is now thriving, with Union Station as the economic engine that fueled the rebirth. Union Station itself is an active place of commerce and congregation, hosting more than 250 events a year with 300,000 people going through it. And that is just in a town of 40,000. Imagine what goes on in bigger cities across the country.

What is happening in California and Vermont that CNN chose to ignore, is improved intercity passenger rail. This is all part of the program the federal stimulus dollars supported. There was not supposed to be a Japanese bullet train in Vermont or a French maglev train in California. America’s rail program needs to grow and it can only do so in increments. People need to have transportation options and riding a train that gets you somewhere faster, with pleasant vistas and room to stretch your legs, should be something we should all work toward.

So, my invitation stands. Messrs. Grffin and Clack, I’d be happy to take you on a train ride through America’s cities and towns to show you that rail travel is an important, viable, critical mode of transportation in this country, and one that cannot be ignored.

John Robert Smith is currently the president and CEO of Reconnecting America, formerly the Great American Station Foundation, which he co-founded. He is the former mayor of Meridian, Miss., and a long-time leader on behalf of passenger rail and the station-centered community development movement. He is co-chairman of Transportation for America, a former chairman of Amtrak’s board and a former member of the transportation committees of the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, as well as former co-chairman of the National Forum on the Future of Passenger Rail.

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