My Amtrak solution

In the wake of the tragic Amtrak crash this week just north of downtown Philadelphia, everyone is talking about what happened, how it happened, why it happened, and what are the implications for Amtrak’s future.

Amtrak crash in Philly May 2015Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Those grounds will be covered ad nauseum, and I won’t add to the cacophony of reports related to the accident, except to say that Positive Train Control (PTC, a computer-controlled system that prevents trains from overspeeding and from proceeding through red signals) works and would have been operational on that stretch of track in Philly had Amtrak been properly funded.  Period.  End of story.

So who is to blame for the root causes of underfunding that led us to this accident?

I think we all are.

We have allowed Amtrak to be the whipping boy of every Congress since its creation, and those doing the whipping are folks we elected and reelected to represent us.  Amtrak has been woefully under-valued and underfunded since its inception.  It was the unwanted, red-headed stepchild even in 1971, expected by the Nixon administration to quietly die within a few years. Amtrak was starved of money and attention as it was born based on the assumption that it would never survive.

Forty-four years later nothing much has changed.  For almost half a century Amtrak has been berated, scorned, attacked, and short-changed by politicians on the premise that it has consistently failed to earn its keep.

Expecting Amtrak to make money—or at least not to lose money—is ridiculous.  The fact is that passenger train networks are not profitable anywhere on earth—not when all infrastructure costs are properly factored in.  We should no more expect Amtrak to make a profit than we should expect a fish to ride a bicycle.  Not gonna happen, not now, not ever.  Which means that all the bloviating in Congress against Amtrak is a waste of time and energy.  Just not value-adding.

Key lesson here:  Passenger rail will always, ALWAYS need subsidies.  If we as a nation don’t like that, well, then we don’t have to have passenger rail service, be it local, regional, intercity, or interstate.

My suggested Amtrak solution is drastic, but simple:

  1. Kill Amtrak as a whole, and bury its name, never to be used again, rest in peace.
  1. Reorganize Amtrak’s parts into whatever regional elements make sense to states and cities that decide themselves that they need passenger rail service. The key here is to let them decide.  The NEC (Northeast Corridor Washington-NYC-Boston), for instance, could be organized as the NEC Railway, or call it the Boondoggle Railroad.  Whatever you like, but not Amtrak, never again Amtrak.  Regional systems like Chicago-St. Louis, Chicago-Milwaukee, NYC-Albany, Washington-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte, and so on could be forged on some basis.  The devil will be in the details, as always, but I’m confident regional authorities could be worked out.  Ditto for intra-California, intra-Texas, intra-Florida, and other rail services wholly within one state.  And so on.  But it wouldn’t be Amtrak. Never again Amtrak.
  1. Long distance trains like NYC-Chicago, NYC-Florida, and the various routes from Chicago to the West Coast may or may not survive. If they do, regional authorities and individual states would have to decide how to partner to take on full responsibility for the costs and work out how to pay for the trains.  But it wouldn’t be Amtrak.
  1. In all cases, organize the passenger rail services knowing that subsidies will be required: smaller subsidies for NEC trains, probably, and pretty big subsidies for long distance trains. I don’t know whether the federal government would be involved or not; that is a significant devil among the details.  I just know this needs to be done and that for it to work, government at some or many levels—local, state, regional, and perhaps federal—is going to have to pony up perpetual subsidies to pay for the services.
  1. The taxpayers benefiting most from the services need to say “amen” to subsidizing the passenger trains. It’s my belief that they will because they understand the value of services close to home.  For example, fiscally conservative voters in my home state of North Carolina have for a long time, and continue to, support ongoing subsidies for passenger rail services that link, for example. Raleigh to Charlotte.

That’s it, my solution:  Put Amtrak out of its misery, and parse its network into whatever regional systems can attract the political will to guarantee adequate funding so that we never have to stint on a safety system like PTC again.


Note from the author on May 19, 2015:

Since writing this post, it has come to light that the FCC shared responsibility with Amtrak for the absence of operational PTC on two of the four tracks in the accident area, including the track that Amtrak 188 was traveling on at the time of the crash.  FCC had not provided Amtrak with a radio frequency required to make PTC work on two of the tracks, but had for the other two.  Go figure.

This doesn’t change the fact that Amtrak is and has been severely underfunded because the mood of the country has come to fear and loath any manifestation of central government.  I am all for passenger rail, but I no longer believe that Amtrak is a vehicle for success.  It will never outrun its critics.  Local subsidies, at least, stand a chance in this harsh environment.

At the same time I lament the death of good public transportation policy at the federal (national) level where, I continue to firmly believe, it belongs.  My blog post reflects the unhappy reality that Americans no longer value such national public policy.  This is the reality of our time, and I don’t see a sea change on the horizon to restore what once was.  I am merely suggesting a way to make passenger trains work rather than see us lose them altogether, because that’s where I see us headed.

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