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High-Speed Garbage

For Amtrak, the average customer apparently ranks just below trash.

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Sullen and shivering, a dozen would-be Amtrak passengers and I stood at Fredericksburg's forlorn, 1910-era train station March 3. Dark clouds scudded across the sky while a flag flapped in 20-knot northwesterly winds. Amtrak Train 94 was late.

I was on my way to Washington for a late afternoon meeting. Rather than get caught driving on Interstate 95 in the evening rush hour, I opted to drive halfway, and then catch the train. Bad choice.

We didn't know why the train was late. We were told to expect a delay of 60 minutes, which eventually became 90.

While we shivered on, we heard the droning baah, baah of a diesel locomotive horn. In seconds, three southbound CSX engines in blue and yellow livery hustled past, pulling cars with huge green containers lettered with “Waste Management” on the side, along with a stamp from a New Jersey environmental agency. The freight quickly shot out of sight.

Then it dawned on me: It was a garbage train — a highballing priority. Humans are nothing compared with profitable, out-of-state waste. Later, my suspicions are confirmed. Lisa Kardell, a Waste Management spokeswoman, says that the train was indeed taking garbage from the New York City area to the Old Dominion.

The daily run had departed Elizabeth, N.J., and was bound for the company's Atlantic landfill in Sussex County. The garbage cars would be shifted to Norfolk Southern in Petersburg, according to a once-controversial deal hatched in the 1990s to make Virginia a dumping ground for Northern waste.

To help grease the rail wheels, Waste Management is a top political donor in Virginia, giving $71,500 to more than 70 different political campaigns in the past year. Gov. Bob McDonnell's inauguration and campaign got a total of $13,000, the largest sum, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

To be sure, a number of Virginia politicians and business officials back higher-speed passenger rail service from Richmond to Washington. But the state got a measly $75 million when it sought $1.8 billion for federal improvements to the CSX-owned line. True high speed rail would cost a lot more: $4 billion to $6 billion.

The next day, I call Karina Romero of Amtrak's Washington headquarters. She explains that Train 94 had been delayed by CSX track maintenance in Ashland. “They usually try to schedule the work so morning rush trains won't be affected,” she says. “Midday trains often get delayed. Plus, there were some freight trains also in the area.”

Nice to know where I stand.

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