Friday, November 18, 2005

Amtrak: More Thoughts

Reading various posts and comments concerning recent events around the firing of David Gunn has led to discussions about Amtrak in general terms. Subsidies, viability, leadership, and the future are all fair game. A couple of frequently heard points are below, with appropriate responses:

"Long-distance trains are a drain on Amtrak. Let's stick to service on densely populated corridors."

This statement generally comes from people who live in the Northeast, or perhaps within a couple of hundred miles of Chicago. It may not be true. Past reporters have commented that accounting methods do not accurately reflect the cost of long distance trains. Within the past week, Mr. Andrew Seldon, VP Law and Policy of the United Passenger Rail Alliance, was quoted as saying,

"Much has been said about the long distance trains. They still produce the lion's share of transportation output, at a very small cost. An FRA study two years ago pegged the cash cost at well-under $100 million a year, at the time, less than 8% of Amtrak's annual subsidy. That is a GOOD return on investment, in fact the best in the whole Amtrak system. Only Amtrak's discredited accounting system artificially makes these trains look bad. (They continue to be well-used: their load factor varies from 50 to 65%, and they produce nearly half of all of the transportation output in the entire system.) The Amtrak Board cannot be blamed for its misunderstanding of them: if Amtrak's managers and its accounting system were your sole source of information on these trains, you would question them also. But this can be reversed. Splitting off the NEC infrastructure, and installing an all-new, objective and competent accounting system, both current Board priorities, will allow a very different understanding of the critical financial role of the long distance trains to emerge." Read the whole comment here.

There is no doubt that corridors in the Northeast, the Midwest, and California are important, heavily traveled, and need to continue. But the elimination of long distance trains will drastically reduce transportation options in cities and towns like Alpine, Texas, or Winnemucca, Nevada, or Hastings, Nebraska, or Popular Bluff, Missouri, or Danville, Virginia, or Greenwood, Mississippi. You begin to understand that a train from Chicago to Los Angeles is also one from Dodge City, Kansas to Winslow, Arizona. This is why those Senators and Representatives from outlining districts are so hot to defend their train!

These trains are not "pork barrel". The subsidy is small. The return is great. That leads us to the next comment.

"We'd be better off buying each person a plane ticket rather than subsidize their trip on the train. We can't continue to subsidize some nostalgic relic for the benefit of foamers."

If you do not know, the term "foamer" is a less than flattering description of a railfan. The implication here is that Amtrak exists solely for their benefit. Yeah, it's a crazy point of view.

Such a statement is the sort of argument you hear when a politician, or someone who looks like a politician, wants to score political points by showing a sincere desire to cut Federal Spending. The unspoken is this: Amtrak is an easy target. No matter how many times you read about what a pittance the subsidy to Amtrak is compared to Highways, or Airlines, or even waterways, the fact that Amtrak's subsidy is so exposed makes it easier to get after than the hidden subsidies to the hidden support of an airline ticket. Imagine the true cost of an airline ticket, or even a bus ticket if the whole cost of transportation infrastructure was included. So every time you read or hear such a statement, stop and reflect for a moment before you nod your head and say, "Yeah, that's right."

Finally, you might hear this sort of thing from fiscal conservatives:

"The government, either Federal or State, or local for that matter, has no business being in the passenger train business anyway."

The government is clearly in the transportation business, as noted above, and that should include passenger trains, too. Believe me when I say that I am as conservative as the next, even to the point of being a libertarian. But there are certain areas where private enterprise cannot do the job. Oh, there are dinner trains here and there, and don't forget the American Orient Express. That's all wonderful. That's also a nitch. And it cannot be done on a State by State basis. Sometimes, New York and New Jersey have a tough time working together just crossing the Hudson. Can you imagine getting Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan all working together to improve and then jointly operate a train from Chicago to Kalamazoo? It would be very, very difficult for them to agree. It is much less difficult for Amtrak.

If you are still not convinced that government should continue with Amtrak, read this posting from Rip Track made in the early summer. Yes, it has to do with Transit, but the logic applies to Amtrak as well.

These arguments come up over and over again. It's one of the reasons Amtrak has struggled. Amtrak has not struggled because of the lack of David Gunn's leadership, in spite of the GAO Report. David Gunn was helping. The Amtrak Board, Norman Mineta and The Administration are not. The real problems should be identified and corrected now, before Amtrak becomes more political fodder.


At 12:57 PM, November 20, 2005, Blogger Stephen said...

Isn't the Michigan corridor an illustration of the difficulties of using state funds under the 403(b) provision of the Amtrak legislation? Michigan puts up money, but without the train crossing Indiana to get to Chicago, the service is of little use. Illinoisans with kids at Michigan or Michigan State might put a little pressure on the Illinois DOT to kick in, but whether the service lasts hinges on legislatures in Springfield and Lansing making the right calls. The Hiawatha service is subject to many of the same difficulties. Perhaps you are right that there would be no train at all absent the umbrella called "Amtrak" but even with that umbrella the state agencies attempt to fob costs off on each other, or on the federal budget.

At 2:46 PM, November 21, 2005, Blogger Rip said...

I think we are in basic agreement, here, perhaps due to bad verbage on my part. My point was that if Amtrak was no longer, whatever train service to Chicago that the State of Michigan wished to maintain, it would be of little use without the cooperation of Indiana and Illinois. Those States could say no, and that would be that.

Not that there are no problems with the existing situation, but I do believe that Amtrak helps more than it hurts when it comes to maintaining "interstate" passenger trains.

I also believe that Amtrak, as it exists, has a great deal more leverage with Class One Railroads than an individual State would insofar as getting trackage rights to operate trains. Once again, it could be done, but at greater difficulty without Amtrak.


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