Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Fox News and its “analysts” try to compare GM deal to Amtrak

Another journalistic homerun from Fox News, which, in its a piece today on the GM bailout announcement,  has once again shown itself to be the grand master of wiggle-words and half truths.

General Motors is trying to prove that it is the little engine that could. But the bankrupt automaker may never fully climb the mountain ahead of it, if Amtrak is any example.

Some analysts say the federal government’s effort to prop up the nation’s largest auto manufacturer is eerily similar to a 40-year effort to revive the nation’s ailing railroad system. Billions of taxpayer dollars later, Amtrak still needs the government to survive — and critics say General Motors appears to be headed down the same track.

The “analysts” the article refers to constantly seem to be drawn from only two referenced sources: Wendell Cox and some guy from the Heritage Foundation… not exactly objective observers. I don’t need to reassert the fact that national rail systems across the world are accepted as places where the government needs to continually invest, and I’m not going to take sides on the issue of General Motor’s bankruptcy. I’ll just say that we can start comparing the GM deal to Amtrak when GM is the only company selling cars in the entire country. There are a host of good reasons to support rail transportation, and the only one making the GM deal legitimate right now is jobs. This should be treated as a real national issue, not just another chance for slanted journalists to take potshots at their favorite political target.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics

15 Responses

  1. Arkstfan says:

    One thing government has consistently done is invest in transportation infrastructure.

    Canals first along with roads. The US Constitution specifically authorizes the construction of roads so the mail can shipped. The railroads were built by giving the railroad companies vast tracts of land and the use of the government’s borrowing power. The highways also have been built with the government dollars as well.

    Government does not go into the transportation business to make a profit, it does so to build the infrastructure for the benefit of the public and the businesses in the nation.

  2. Woody says:

    One sad similarity between Amtrak and the new General Motors.

    Usually businesses grow their way to success. Less often do they shrink down to robust profits. But for 40 years the government’s “business plan” for Amtrak has been to cut routes, reduce frequency, try to get by with less.

    In recent years several states have paid for added passenger rail service, and at last Amtrak’s total ridership has begun to grow. If it can continue to grow, Amtrak will be seen as a success after all.

    But for General Motors, I just don’t know.

  3. Douglas John Bowen says:

    The more rational comparison, though by no means a one-for-one analysis, is matching GM with the government’s oversight in the creation of Conrail in 1976–not the creation of Amtrak in 1971.

  4. jon says:

    exactly douglas, conrail is the thing to be looking at, and i dont know why we havent heard more about conrail as a comparison in the media. the US did get all its money and then some.

  5. Arkstfan says:

    To build on that. Chrysler Bailout I worked.

    The biggest problem with Amtrak is relevance to the consumer.

    If I want to go to Dallas or San Antonio from Little Rock, my choice is 3:10 am tomorrow or the next day. If I want to go to St. Louis or Chicago my choice is 11:34 pm tonight or tomorrow.

    But at least I can get there in somewhat reasonable time. But what if I want to go to say Washington, DC?

    I leave Little Rock at 11:34 tonight, arrive in Chicago tomorrow around 2pm, leave Chicago tomorrow night around 7pm and arrive in DC the next afternoon at 1:15 pm. That’s a 38 hour trip.

    What about Memphis? I leave Little Rock at 11:34 tonight, arrive in Chicago tomorrow around 2pm, leave Chicago at 8pm and arrive in Memphis at 6:27 am the next day. About 33 hours if my math is right. If I bicycle at 10 mph I can get to Memphis in 13 hours.

    Amtrak’s web site tells me the best way from Little Rock to New Orleans is via Chicago, I suspect it is better to leave at 3:10 am for San Antonio arrive at 10:30 pm and leave at 1:00 am for 4pm arrival in New Orleans.

    Long example I know but you can get there from here is a common problem especially outside the NE corridor.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Gahh, i have the same problem arkstfan. I wanted to go from LR to Greenwood, Ms. (im from indianola, ms. It would be so simple to hop right on over to Mem. but heck no, I have to go to chicago and the ticket is outlandish. I know the route was not designed for that but if amtrak wants to grow, they need to get better connected. Also, I looked at going from greenwood to miami, it sent me north to Chi then down south to the eastern seaboard on my merry lil way to Miami to grad school.

  7. Woody says:

    These complaints about how not to get from Little Rock to Memphis are embarrassingly naive. Anonymous says, “If Amtrak wants to grow they need to …” And this from someone claiming to be en route to grad school? Let me be charitable. Anonymous was maybe too deep in the books to have noticed what is going on in the real world.

    in the real world, powerful forces determine what Amtrak does or does not do, not Amtrak, one of the least powerful entitites in public life. For most of the past 28 years or so the White House, Department of Transportation, and Congress have been controlled by an ideology that hates passenger railroads, hates public transit, hates public anything.

    But even before Ronald Reagan and his crew of right wingers took over, Amtrak was designed to fail. The funds alloted to Amtrak have always been just enough to keep it going, but never ever enough to make it better. The interludes when democrats had some influence were little better. Bill Clinton obviously didn’t give a damn about Amtrak or any passenger trains from Little Rock to anywhere

    But elections have consequences. In 2006 the Republicans lost and the Democrats took control of Congress. Since then there has been a trickle of better funding for Amtrak. This comes against a background of greater concern about the environment that has brought new support. High gas prices made travel by Amtrak look more affordable on many routes. And states like Illinois, Michigan, California, and even Oklahoma have been investing in more frequent trains on some key routes. As a result, total ridership on Amtrak has been growing for several years.

    If you want trains to run between Little Rock and Memphis you could try to get your legislature to cover the operating losses that would occur on this route as on any route. After all, Oklahoma is picking up the tab for the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth. And Kansas and Oklahoma are looking into subsidizing new service north of Oklahoma City to Kansas City. So quit whining about “if Amtrak wants …” and see what you can do about “if Arkansas wants.” You may get a graduate level course in disappointment when you make those calls.

    Meanwhile you could also contact the Senators from Walmart and your Representatives in the House as well, and urge them to support full funding for more and better passenger rail nationwide.

    You can tell them that to increase service substantially with new routes and more trains on the existing routes, Amtrak will need to order 1,000 or so new cars — locomotives, coaches, diners, lounges, sleeping cars, dome cars, etc. That is to expand.

    Then to replace the old cars wearing out — and the newest cars came into the fleet about 15 years ago — we’ll need another 1,000 or so. The combined new order, if placed this year, could put new trains on the rails before the end of Obama’s second term. Some trains could even go on the line to Memphis, if funding for operating new routes also gets through Congress or the Arkansas Lege. The new car order alone will cost roughly $5 billion, as a nice round number. So contact your Congresscritter now. Lots of luck with that.

    It will probably be easier to take the train to Chicago to get to Memphis or Florida than to get the desired commitment from your elected representatives. But afterwards you won’t embarrass yourself by saying again, “if Amtrak wants to grow…”

  8. Woody says:

    Don’t want to beat up on Arkstfan or Anonymous– I did that already — but they should look at the list of attenders at the meeting today with Biden and LaHood. No one from the state governments of Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, or Texas. Arkstfan and Anonymous may want trains from Little Rock to nearby cities and points east, but apparently those Governors don’t much care. Don’t blame Amtrak that your Gov didn’t show.

  9. Mad Park says:

    Thank you Woody – your first 2 paragraphs @7 should be repeated and repeated and repeated. To the millions of naive souls who think we will have HSR tomorrow and to all those who expect “free” government money just to appear. As stated so many times here – it will take decades and hundreds of billions of dollars just to build a comprehensive passenger train network, and then to get higher speed rail in the US, let alone HSR.

  10. Allan says:

    Actually, I recently found out that Amtrak looked into a Memphis-LR route in the past only to discover that the rails leading from the station to the bridge had “disappeared”. I don’t know if the ROW is still there or what. But it is a route that is needed to help Amtrak grow.

    I’m really disappointed, but not surprised, to see the “railroads must be subsidized” attitude here. Passenger railroads have been known to run a profit.

    Don’t put the blame on Congress. It hasn’t matter which party has controlled congress, they haven’t given much in the way of subsidies because even the congress-critters can see how poorly Amtrak has been run.

    Put the majority of the blame where it belongs … on the management of Amtrak.

  11. Woody says:

    Allan, get real. The Amtrak budget was cut massively under Jimmy Carter and again under Reagan and again under Clinton.

    It has been maintained during the period that the reichtwingers controlled the federal government because it is perfect for their propaganda needs: They want to be able to point to it and say, The government can’t do anything right, it can’t even run a railroad.

    So does Amtrak need news passenger cars to replace aging equipment? The drown-government-in-the-bathtub crowd has made sure no new train cars are ordered since Newt Gingrich and his merry band took over the House.

    Would adding departures on popular routes attract more passengers? Obviously. So they have made sure there are no coaches and no money to do that. A few states — especially California, but also Michigan and Illinois have paid for more runs, and filled the trains. But there hasn’t been federal money to really improve or expand Amtrak at any time in the past 35 years.

    Even labor relations is out of the control of Amtrak management. In the fading days of the Bushies, negotiations reached an impasse. The Bushies put the matter before an arbitrator they chose who ruled in favor of the union on every single issue, even refusing management requests for work-rule changes to increase efficiency. In this way Amtrak was saddled with back payments to the unions amounting to $100 million or more. It was a going-away present from those who hate the idea of passenger trains, hate the people who use trains, and hate the idea of government providing any public service.

    You are a sucker to fall for the political line that somehow the management of Amtrak is responsible for the policies of the past 35 years or more.

    BTW. We await your list of successful railroad systems which are not subsidized. Like unsubsidized public highways and unsubsidized public airports, there are none. Just because Rush says it is so doesn’t make it so.

  12. Allan says:

    NETHERLANDS Railways (NS) says the introduction of an ambitious new timetable and the opening of new stations helped it to maintain its healthy financial performance last year, although net profits fell by 281 million [euro] to 56 million [euro]. NS Holdings’ total turnover reached 4.25 billion [euro], an increase of 213 million [euro], with revenues from the core domestic passenger business reaching 2.47 …

    And how about those pesky Japanese? The three Japanese railways (East, West and Central Japan) all make a profit. You can read their Annual Reports on the web since they are listed on the NYSE.

    Woody-“The Amtrak budget was cut massively under Jimmy Carter and again under Reagan and again under Clinton.”

    Two out of three that you mentioned are democrats. No “rightwing” conspiracy here!

    Amtrak has never tried to run itself like a corporation. Rather, it’s more like mass transit on steroids.

    Amtrak should have long ago renegotiated its labor contracts.

    It has sunk a massive amount of money into the NEC (with a lot of shady accounting that wouldn’t be allowed with other private corporations) and ignored the rest of the system. Earlier this year it was again proposing to drop all the western and southern routes! Ridership is increasing on these routes and Amtrak wants to cut them!!!

    We’re debating putting a link between LR and Memphis while Amtrak has yet to restore the link between New Orleans and Florida even tho the rail line was repaired by CSX!

    I’ve ridden Amtrak and the train was pretty full. This was without any marketing. Imagine what they could do with more marketing and increasing the frequency. Good management would do that … Amtrak? Nah, they’re afraid of success!

  13. Woody says:

    I don’t want to become chief apologist for Amtrak, that’s a thankless job! But it’s simplistic to blame the victim when Amtrak policy is really set by the President and Congress, not by its board or management.

    I’m glad you saw for yourself the pent-up demand for more passenger trains, evidenced by pretty full trains at the current lousy speeds, inconvenient schedules, and the fragmented route system.

    You suggest that we imagine what Amtrak could do with increasing the frequency. No need to imagine, we have case studies. In 2005, iirc, the State of Illinois bellied up to the bar and agreed to pay Amtrak to run more trains within the state. Two more runs were added to the three St Louis-Springfield-Normal-Chicago. With roughly 65% more capacity on this route, total ridership increased by 90% the first year. Normal has become one of the busiest stations in the entire system. Amtrak has grabbed a massive market share of trips Springfield-Chicago and Normal-Chicago.

    Hey, let’s do that again.

    But of course, the freight line has to agree to find space in their schedules to run more passenger trains on their tracks. Sometimes a little grease will do it, and a state agrees to pay a few million more for de-bottlenecking, doubletracking, or such. But it isn’t always easy, especially with the tangle of tracks and street level crossings around Chicago. BTW Chicago has the CREATE plan to untangle the mess. A few billion of public and private money could really get trains moving in and around that city and across the Midwest.

    Well, look at Virginia. The Commonwealth wanted a new train from Charlottesville to NYC, willing to pay any losses. But Amtrak replied that there was no room in the schedule for another train D.C.-NYC. Not one.

    Acelas, Regionals, Jersey Transit Clockers to Philly, Keystones to Harrisburg, long distance trains like the Crescent heading south and west, many many commuter trains serving four or five cities, not room on the NEC for one more train day or night.

    So the compromise was to extend a regional train that ended its run in D.C. before midnight down into Virginia, turn it around to head back predawn. Great schedule, right? Leave Charlottesville in the dark, return in the dark. Have a nice trip. But how exactly is it Amtrak’s fault that the NEC is, in effect, completely sold out? You think nobody told George W. Bush about the problem? Nobody told Congress?

    And where to get the cars to make up the more trains that you and I both want? It’s been 15 years or more since Congress put any money in the budget to buy new coaches for Amtrak. Today it needs 1,000 new coaches to expand with new routes and greater frequency, another 1,000 to replace those cars wearing out. And it needs dining cars, sleepers, lounges, dome cars, baggage cars, and locomotives as well.

    Amtrak can buy locomotives off the shelf, pretty much, but the others? Amtrak can’t buy more of the same cars it got 15 or 20 years ago. The manufacturer stopped production of those models it said were technologically obsolete.

    So a new order, a new appropriation of several billions … did you notice the Bushies getting this important, long-range planning underway?

    Start now to design the specs, get safety approval, win Congressional funding, place the order — when, tomorrow? — allow a year or so for the factory (where? Canada if we’re lucky, Germany or Northern Ireland if you think Congress will go for that) to finish its current orders and start work on the new one for Amtrak. Then some months to get the coaches out the door and into testing. At last they start to slide off the assembly line at a rate of, oh, one a week would be remarkable, one or two a month more common. Four coaches to a train, no at least eight, two months or eight of production to get one more damn train on the rails.

    Then you can add more frequency. Maybe late in Obama’s second term we can add another train if La Hood gets cracking on this now. Until then, blame “Amtrak” or its management. It’s a fun and easy thing to do.

  14. John Bredin says:

    “Earlier this year it was again proposing to drop all the western and southern routes! Ridership is increasing on these routes and Amtrak wants to cut them!!!”

    Eh?! I never heard this before now, and I keep up daily with passenger rail on the Web.

    I regularly read All_Aboard on Yahoo Groups, probably the most pessimistic pro-rail (as opposed to anti-rail like Cato and such) place on Earth when it comes to Amtrak. If there had been such a proposal, made seriously (not in jest or parody) by someone who actually could do something about it (the Amtrak board or president, not a gossiping car-knocker), I would have read about it there weeks or months ago. Even if it had been made in jest by someone who couldn’t make it happen, I probably *still* would have read about it there. :^)

    In short, kindly show us the evidence of this rather damning accusation.

    P.S.: The proposal to shuffle the Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited around to provide daily Texas Eagle service San Antonio-Los Angeles and daily daytime-only service San Antonio-New Orleans does NOT count! Even if you disagree vehemently with that plan, it (1) does not affect “all the southern and western routes,” much less eliminate them, which is your claim, and (2) no station now receiving service is/was going to lose service, and indeed every station between New Orleans and Los Angeles would have daily service where it has only thrice-weekly service now.

  15. kars says:

    very good thanks

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