WASHINGTON – It all began with Lily, a 15-pound snowball of a French bulldog with the face of a tough guy and the personality of a princess.
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She and her owner, Rep. Jeff Denham of California, take the occasional coast-to-coast plane ride together. But when he tried to take her on Amtrak a couple years back, he learned that only service dogs were allowed aboard. It's a policy he's been trying to change ever since, and he appears to be gaining momentum.
Denham, a Republican who chairs a House subcommittee overseeing the agencies that regulate the nation's railroad industry, said allowing people to bring small dogs and cats with them in pet carriers would encourage more people to travel by train instead of on congested roads. It might also bring much needed revenue to a business that relies on taxpayer support to survive.
So far, Denham has succeeded in persuading Amtrak to conduct a test run for pets along two routes in Illinois. About 145 passengers took advantage of the new service last year, with participation gradually increasing each month as more passengers learned they could bring a pet.
Now, Denham wants to expand the service nationally. He has filed a bill that would require Amtrak to come up with a pet policy for passengers traveling less than 750 miles. Twenty-three lawmakers have signed onto the legislation, from conservative Republicans like Tom McClintock to liberal Democrats like Mike Honda. Both are from California.
Denham said his pet proposal could also find its way into legislation being considered this year that authorizes how much money the federal government provides Amtrak.
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"It's been wildly bipartisan," Denham said of his proposal. "Members that have pets have a particular interest, but certainly we've picked up more and more support across the country."
Amtrak could change the policy on its own. Officials have made clear they support the concept, but they're also still in the monitoring phase. For example, one of the questions that will have to be resolved is the limit on distance that passengers with pets can travel. After all, dogs and cats need potty breaks, too.
But Congress weighing in reinforces that at least some of the folks paying much of Amtrak's tab wants a nationwide policy sooner rather than later.
"We're going at this carefully, because there are people who very much want this, and there are people who are concerned about how it could affect them," said Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak.
In Illinois, those wishing to take pets must make advanced reservations and pay a $25 surcharge. Only animals weighing 20 pounds or less can board and they must be in their carriers at all times. The pets and their owners also are relegated to a particular train car and customers have to arrive at least 30 minutes before departure so they can sign a release agreement. Amtrak reserves the right to remove from the train any pet that smells bad or is disruptive.
"The experiment has gone well and the lack of any negative feedback from customers or crewmembers is heartening," Magliari said.
At one point, Amtrak did allow small pets on its trains, but they were going into dated baggage cars with poor ventilation and protection from the elements. The practice was halted in the 1970s after some pets died.
Various lobbying groups affiliated with pet owners and pet businesses are also weighing in.
"Millions of American families have beloved pets, and allowing them to travel by train will support the human-animal bond," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States.
At Union Station in Washington, D.C, which is Amtrak's second-busiest hub, Tracy and Samm McMillan of Fairfield, Connecticut, said they would definitely take their cockapoo, Bailey, on trips with them if they could.
"We miss her. It's tough. We work. We're gone during the week, and on the weekend, we don't necessarily like leaving her, so to be able to bring her would be awesome," Samm McMillan said. "That would be a huge benefit to us and we would take advantage of it."
Diane Mileson of New York City agreed. She said her family only goes to restaurants that will also allow her rescue dog, Bode, to come along.
"We would have brought him today for sure," Mileson said.
Some Amtrak customers weren't necessarily opposed to Amtrak allowing pets on trains, but they were opposed to Congress dictating to Amtrak what services it offers.
"I don't think government should get involved in companies at that micro of a level," said Jeff Dunnigan of Richmond, Virginia. "Amtrak is a company. They need to see if there is a demand for that service. They need to see if they can make money fulfilling that demand, and if they can, they will do it."