Die, Amtrak, Die!

June 20, 2002

Bush Warned to Be Speedy on Amtrak Funding

The chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation said today the Bush administration must quickly ask for enough money to keep Amtrak running through the rest of the fiscal year or "be prepared to explain to the American people why it will allow Amtrak to go bankrupt in the middle of the summer travel season."

Maybe Amtrak will go bankrupt in the middle of the holiday season because "Congress has given Amtrak just enough money to struggle along year after year while ordering the corporation to operate trains that had no chance of covering their costs."

I agree with John Tierny: Amtrak Must Die.

The Acela hits its peak speed of 150 m.p.h. for only 18 miles between New York and Boston. While European countries have been laying new high-speed tracks, Amtrak is deferring maintenance on tracks in the Northeast Corridor to subsidize long-distance trains elsewhere.

That's with the caveat, that Northeast Corridor service is maintained and improved. It is the most convenient way to travel from New York to Boston or Washington.

Posted by Andrew Raff at June 20, 2002 04:20 PM

In the event it ever becomes necessary to shut down air traffic again, how do you propose people travel from coast to coast? Many working folks drive cars around town that won't make it cross country, and a three day, round-the-clock bus trip is unrealistic for most people over 50 / under 18 / with bad backs. Passenger rail makes for a more resilient transportation system, and makes it considerably more difficult for a small group of determined no-goodniks to shut the whole country down. Passenger rail doesn't have to be Amtrak, but if it's not, what's the alternative?

Posted by: sassafrass on June 22, 2002 07:48 PM

Why not encourage more transatlantic passenger shipping to prevent intercontinental travel from being disrupted? It boils down to economics. The market for long-distance passsenger rail service is too small to be sustainable without government subsidies. So either, Amtrak is a business or a public service. Currently, it is being asked to serve both roles. It can not continue to offer long-distance routes and be profitable. The goals are mutually exclusive, yet Congress is demanding both. I think rail offers the most efficient form of medium distance travel, and freeing a smaller, less bureaucratic Amtrak from the burden of subsidizing long-distance travel from Northeast corridor revenues (and taxpayer expense) should result in improved service.

To be a viable business, long-distance passenger rail (which I'm defining as for distances where a train trip will take longer than a plane trip, when time wasted at the airport and getting to the airport are accounted for) will have to recast itself in the way that the cruise industry has, by becoming a way for tourists to see the country in style. The only ship to run the transatlantic route now, the QE2, sells it as a leisurely and luxurious way to travel to Europe, and bundles the cruise in a package with return air. Tierny's article discussed two companies, American Orient Express and Acadian Railway who are offering land cruises (rather expensively.)

I don't think passenger rail travel should simply end, and I do support emergency funding for Amtrak so that it doesn't shut down this week. However, Amtrak, as a monopoly and a large entity suffers because it is run on a philosophy of not caring. (This is not to say that individual Amtrak employees do not care. Many of them do care about their jobs and do excellent work, but they work in a culture of corporate indifference.)

The federal government should be spending money on the rail infrastructure, just as it does on the highways and air traffic control. National rail service should be opened up to competition, like the airline industry. Amtrak will be forced back to running the routes that it can do profitably. More importantly, it will have to compete, and that should raise the level of service it can provide.

Posted by: Andrew Raff on June 24, 2002 01:36 PM