Should pets be allowed to travel on trains?
It all began with Lily.
She is a 15-pound snowball of a French bulldog. The pooch has the face of a tough guy and the personality of a princess.
Her owner is U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham of California. They 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. And he appears to be gaining momentum.
Denham is a Republican who chairs a House subcommittee. It oversees the agencies that regulate the nation's railroad industry. Denham believes allowing people to bring small dogs and cats with them in pet carriers would encourage more people to travel by train. It might also bring much needed revenue. Amtrak is a business that relies on taxpayer support to survive.
So far, Denham has succeeded in persuading Amtrak to conduct a test run for pets in Illinois. About 145 passengers took advantage of the new service last year. Participation gradually increased each month.
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.
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.
"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. He is a spokesman for Amtrak.
In Illinois, those wishing to take pets must make advanced reservations. They also must pay a $25 surcharge. Only animals weighing 20 pounds or less can board. They must be in their carriers at all times. The pets and their owners also are relegated to a particular train car. Customers have to arrive at least 30 minutes before departure. Amtrak reserves the right to remove from the train any pet that smells bad or is disruptive.
"The experiment has gone well. 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 the animals were going into dated baggage cars. Those had poor ventilation and poor protection from the elements. The practice was halted in the 1970s.
At Union Station in Washington, 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.
Critical thinking challenge: Pet owners will benefit if they are allowed to bring their pets on trains. But how would Amtrak benefit?