Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

USA TODAY notes rail advances

It is most disappointing that professional journalists seem to have some trouble with the Amtrak story. To be fair, the facts lie in the realm of both transportation and government and are subject to interpretation. For some time now, only airline and trucking interests, with the assistance of a few die-hard elitist so-called conservative think tanks, have been the only ones allowed to speak.

Real serious conservatives think for themselves and recognize the rightful role of government in providing infrastructure. They are not swayed by the emotionalism of aviation and highway lobbies.

So, these are good times at Amtrak. Jim Shur, the AP business writer, gets a lot of it right. Gas prices are up, highways and airports are intolerably congested and Amtrak is carrying more riders.

Now, we get down to the dollars part of the story. Amtrak provides two kinds of services, one is as a transportation company. Amtrak is also a type of social service agency. Passenger trains stop in small towns that have limited options for intercity transportation. Interstate highways also serve isolated areas. That is a social service.

Amtrak’s northeast corridor service is a more pure form of transportation service, seeking to carry the most passengers at the lowest cost with the highest return.

The way the discussion is cast, long distance trains usually get the shaft. This is where the special interests go to work. Operating railroads that run Amtrak passenger trains seems bound by an emotional disdain for passenger trains. All sorts of foolish arguments and the traveling public has very little to compete with the mega dollar contributors to political campaigns.

It is particularly distressing that an Associated Press reporter took the official party line completely unchallenged regarding the “iconic” Sunset Limited. TFA has commented extensively on the distinctions between a service which is being systematically deprived of finances, equipment, stations and infrastructure.

I am sure the reporter has a lot of irons in the fire and never thought to ask questions that are obvious to those of us who closely follow serious transportation issues. He fails to note that:

  • the Orlando – New Orleans section has been suspended for over two years and these travel destinations are unavailable to “feed” other parts of the system.
  • The Sunset operates only three days a week. This means that it has less that 50% of seating inventory available for passengers, but 100% of overhead costs.
  • Stations in several cities (Beaumont, Texas is most notable) are in such bad repair, Amtrak threatens to cease stopping there. This removes on more destination from the map.
  • The Sunset operates over the most congested freight line in the country. While Union Pacific works to improve the infrastructure, the passenger train frequently runs so late it does not reach end points on the scheduled day of the week.

While the Sunset has serious troubles, it is the only available rail service available along a number of essential travel corridors. Should any portion of this train be removed from service, Union Pacific can be expected to move quickly removing signals and all other pieces of the system needed for passenger service. It will not be easily or cheaply restored.

Of course, if you are a trucker or airline, that’s the plan. It is a stupid plan and completely out of date. A modern passenger train network operating fast (79 to 110 mph) is good for the economy and does not harm highway or airline interests. These ant-Amtrak people are just stuck in the past.

Shur said the Sunset loses .62 per passenger mile. I am sure he did not make that number up, although he did not name the source. He also did not suggest what, if any significance, might be attributed to the number.

Oh, the story? Here are a few highlights of what ran in USA Today. You can get the entire piece on the link.

But Amtrak’s headaches remain, and the biggest is funding. The service has never been out of the red since its launch in 1971, meaning it must rely on government handouts year after year.

In trying to hash out the federal budget for next year, Congress is weighing how much U.S. taxpayers should underwrite the passenger service. Amtrak has requested $1.53 billion, nearly twice the amount the Bush Administration wants to give it. In the past, Bush has proposed giving the service nothing.

A House appropriations committee recently agreed to boost Amtrak’s federal funding to $1.4 billion — a modest increase from the service’s $1.3 billion in government help — while a Senate panel has endorsed spending $1.37 billion. But Bush has promised to veto any spending bills exceeding his budget requests, forcing Amtrak to slice service if the president makes good on his threat.

Amtrak says the elusiveness of stable funding holds it back, leaving it unable to commit to infrastructure improvements, get past having to use using some equipment dating back half a century or add new rail cars it says it can easily fill on some routes.

It’s a good to know that taxpayers aren’t asked to “underwrite” airports and highways!

Amtrak officials are pinning their hopes on the bipartisan Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which would authorize $3.3 billion for operating expenses and $4.9 billion for capital improvements over the life of the bill, from 2008 to 2012.

“We can’t keep asking Amtrak to operate like a business while we string the company along year to year,” Sen. Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican sponsoring the bill with Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, said in January.

The haggling over funding comes as Amtrak’s ridership flourishes. Passengers for the fiscal year that ended last September numbered 24.3 million, setting a record for the fourth year in a row when comparing the same routes along the 21,000-mile system serving 500 stations in 46 states and Washington, D.C.

Trent Lott is right, to a point. Providing good transportation is a reasonable function of government. Amtrak ought to be treated like a useful portion of the national transportation ssystem. That includes air, highways, conventional passenger trains, high speed trains, and freight rail. Each of these has had a heavy commitment from government, so the theoretical intellectual purists and elitists should just give it a rest.

On the more positive side, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association is quoted and, as you would expect. stated the case perfectly.


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September 2007


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