Evaluating McCain and Obama on travel issues

Indeed, five years ago McCain tangled with the then-president of Amtrak, David Gunn, who famously suggested that if McCain wished to cut off funding for commuter rail, the Arizona senator should do the same for commuter airlines. The McCain campaign's website includes a section on "Reforming Our Transportation Sector," but there is no mention whatsoever of rail.

David Johnson, deputy director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, was quoted recently as saying: "McCain has consistently not been a supporter of Amtrak. His voting record in the Senate speaks for that." In July, Railway Age summed up both candidates' positions and noted the following: "In his position papers, McCain does not mention Amtrak, or any other form of intercity passenger rail service. His record indicates opposition to continued funding for Amtrak." Because of this history, many Amtrak and rail officials, railroad employees, and surface transportation proponents are bitter opponents of McCain's candidacy.

Obama's campaign site includes a lengthy section on high-speed rail, freight trains and Amtrak. The Democratic nominee supports development of high-speed rail networks across the country and "renewing the federal government's commitment to high-speed rail." The site states that Obama will "continue to fight for Amtrak funding and reform." Such initiatives would seem to be in keeping with his overall goal of meeting the demands of "our short- and long-term energy challenges."

In addition, Obama was co-sponsor of the Passenger Rail Investment and Innovation Act of 2007, designed to provide long-term federal funding to Amtrak. And as noted, Obama's running mate is one of the Senate's most outspoken supporters of Amtrak (Biden's son is also an Amtrak board member). One of Biden's specific concerns, however, is that the focus on aviation security has ignored the threats facing surface transportation. On his own website, he declares support for "increasing security for both passenger trains and trains carrying dangerous cargo."

Passenger rights and airline regulation

Advocates of passenger rights legislation are breaking down along party lines, with many hoping for Democratic wins for the White House as well as Congress. They believe a Senate majority would provide final support for the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Act of 2007, introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). The so-called Boxer-Snowe Bill has received support from several consumer organizations (including Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports). Obama is a co-sponsor (along with Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.); McCain is not.

Kate Hanni, president of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, says her organization is not officially endorsing either candidate. But she makes her own views quite clear: "I'm very confident if Obama and Biden win, we'll get [passenger rights] legislation. If McCain wins, I'll be very discouraged. He is the wrong candidate on this issue."

Interestingly, during his own brief campaign for president, Biden was quite outspoken on the issue of passenger rights. In fact, last November his campaign issued a detailed statement on the steps he would take as president, including requiring airlines to accommodate passengers during delays and creating an Aviation Consumer Protection Commission.

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