Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Amtrak and profits: Rush Loving Jr. tells it like it is

For a change of pace from all the stimulus news in recent weeks, let’s kick off this Monday with a very well-argued piece about Amtrak from someone definitely in the know: Rush Loving. He wrote a book about the rail barons of yore called “The Men Who Loved Trains.” Not the sort of nostalgic thing we usually talk about here at TFA, but the man clearly knows his stuff when it comes to modern rail management as well. He discusses the myth of profitable railroads, and mentions David Gunn, probably Amtrak’s best former head. Here’s a sample:

The entire history of Amtrak is replete with examples of CEOs who have tried to get government to commit long-term funding for the company, only to be ignored. Unfortunatel y, all but David Gunn made a fatal mistake: They never told Congress Amtrak couldn’t ever make money.

None the wiser, Congress has always expected a profitable company, and over the decades Amtrak’s chief executives dutifully have talked of putting Amtrak into the black.

In the mid-1990s Tom Downs went so far as to declare that Amtrak was on “a glide path to profitability.” His successor, George Warrington, went along with the dream, pouring so much money into schemes to raise earnings he blew away all the company’s capital. In the end, just to meet the payroll, Warrington was forced to mortgage one of its most visible assets, New York’s Penn Station.

You don’t hear much talk about Amtrak ever being profitable anymore. With stronger awareness about the environment and the economic benefits of greater transportation options, it seems that more politicians are correctly starting to talk about passenger rail in terms of “investments,” like they have have about highways for decades.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics

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February 2009