Transportation Policy Runs Off the Rails

Labor Day, aside from the day the nation celebrates its working men and women, also heralds the end of the summer travel season.

In an age when the cost of travel continues to escalate with air fares and gasoline prices constantly reaching new highs, one of the most efficient means of travel, while at the same time affording the opportunity of experiencing our nation's natural beauty, continues to be by train -- specifically Amtrak.

Yet throughout its existence Amtrak has been constantly faced with being put out of business by presidents who don't seem to give a darn whether it survives or perishes and a Congress beholden to its railroad freight corporate paymasters.

Meanwhile, practically every other country in the world cares enough about its passenger rail system that it is willing to subsidize both in total and in part such operations.

Contrast that to the US, where in June the House of Representatives voted 406 to 22 to cut the Amtrak federal subsidy by 18%, to $1.1 billion, a subsidy only $214 million more than George W. Bush requested, and which a House panel had approved the preceding week. Amtrak has debt of more than $3.5 billion and its operating loss for 2005 topped $550 million.

Were it not for the profitable Northeast corridor, Amtrak would likely be out of business. What is often overlooked by most Americans, however, save those who frequently travel in that corridor, is the condition of the system itself. Some of its parts go back to the 1930s and hold potential for the kind of mishaps that have plagued the system in recent years.

As a May 28 New York Times editorial stressed, "the underpinnings of the nation's railroad system are primed for disaster. The White House and Congress have tried to squeeze every dollar out of Amtrak's meager budget. To survive, the nation's passenger railroad has cut service and raised ticket prices.

"But what really frightens the rail experts is how little federal money has been available to update the railroad's aging infrastructure. One inspector general for the Department of Transportation warned that the budget for basic maintenance and improvements was so low that Congress and the White House were playing 'Russian roulette' with the welfare of millions of riders across the country."

As a fairly frequent train traveler I have engaged in many conversations with Amtrak personnel about the state of the system. Unlike the White House or Congress, they fully realize not only the causes and faults of the system, but what is required to remedy the situation.

Because Amtrak uses, for the most part, the freight lines of both the BNSF (formerly Burlington Northern and Santa Fe) and Union Pacific railroads, they are pretty much beholden to the nation's railroad monopolies for their arrival and departure times and the comfort of the ride on the tracks owned by those freight lines.

Consequently, for example, passengers on the West Coast "Starlight" (from Seattle to Los Angeles) often scornfully refer to the train as the "Starlate." Union Pacific operates that track and freight apparently still gets priority. A trip to a longtime friend's funeral in San Francisco last spring had me arriving at my destination seven hours late and six-and-a-half hours late on my return trip to Seattle.

As one conductor put it succinctly, "It would please the freight companies no end for us to just completely disappear so they wouldn't even have to bother with us any more."

Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense fairly observes, "Congress has been practicing schizophrenic leadership, trying to give Amtrak tough love but then giving them the money anyway, but no real clear consensus opinion on how they want Amtrak to change. There's never been any real direction given to Amtrak except saying that they have to be more fiscally responsible."

Administration officials say they want to reform Amtrak, not destroy it, but David Gunn, the former Amtrak president who was fired last November after opposing the Amtrak board on a host of issues, believes that "reform is their code word for 'Make it go away.'"

In an age when so much of our society has become impersonal and self-centered, riding the train still continues to be community-centered -- an activity that allows people to walk about, actually engaging in conversation with heretofore perfect strangers, eat their meals with others and meet new friends from not only their own state, but other states and countries as well.

At the same time they can actually see their own country, the good and bad parts of the cities and towns that their neighbors live in, the fields and orchards that grow the food they eat and the scenery that remains hidden from them as they whiz by on an interstate highway or fly thousands of feet above.

Such considerations, however, play little or no role when politicians determine Amtrak budgets, not only because they themselves have most unlikely never experienced the joys of train travel, but also because in determining the fate of so many government programs they prefer judging its success by using a "crunching the numbers" formula rather than considering its social and environmental advantages and consequences.

"Washington power brokers," the Times editorial notes, "like to say that Amtrak is mismanaged, but calling for better management of a system where the wires and steel are eroding is simply dodging the question. It is time to drop the old bromides and recognize that for the United States to be an advanced nation with a mobile work force, the American government needs to maintain a clean, efficient national railroad.

"Amtrak does not need to make a profit, but it does need to work. The government directs billions of dollars to roads and bridges. Airports get plenty of help, but somehow very little trickles down to the rails."

One idea that has been suggested that would serve Amtrak and its customers well would be the creation of a separate rail line for their exclusive use parallel to that of existing key rail lines.

True, the cost would be in the billions of dollars, but if President Dwight D. Eisenhower used the rationality that it would be in the nation's national security interests to construct the Interstate Highway System at the end of World War II, certainly the government today could mine a few billion dollars from the Pentagon's $437 billion budget to build a safe, secure, energy-saving passenger transportation system.

As the Times editorial concludes: "If President Bush really wants transportation alternatives, it is time for a strategic look at how the railroads can serve as an even more important escape valve for the nation's overloaded transportation system."

A.V. Krebs is editor and publisher of the online newsletter The Agribusiness Examiner. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2006

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