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The Monday Rant: Yet Another Amtrak Derailment?

Scott Vogel

Like a lot of people, I have a relationship with Amtrak that's straight out of "Codependent No More": can't live with it, can't live without the hope that America will someday figure out how to have a passenger rail system.

On the one hand, I can certainly understand why Amtrak gets no love from some folks. It's on-time percentage is abysmal, track conditions are often terrible and many of the trains are in desperate need of refurbishment or replacement.

But at a time in which gasoline prices are unspeakably high, as are airfares, and when ridership on the trains is up 11% this year, is it really possible that the White House is threatening to veto the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act?

Indeed it is.

In fact, President Bush, somewhat unbelievably, has recommended that Congress cut Amtrak's budget by $525 million in 2009. To its credit, Congress is not only interested in not cutting that budget, but the Senate at least would like to increase it by $225 million.

It was just three years ago that Bush proposed eliminating all federal funding of Amtrak, which was something of a head-scratcher even then. But now, with the transportation woes that our country is facing, isn't anything less than lukewarm commitment to Amtrak ludicrous?

Or am I missing something? Is this the time to abandon funding a rail system? Amtrak may not hold a candle to the glorious trains elsewhere in the world, but it's all we've got.

What's your take?

By Scott Vogel |  July 21, 2008; 6:34 AM ET  | Category:  Monday Rants , Scott Vogel
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Two key things need to happen before we can even think about having a high-quality passenger rail system in the US.

First, we need to free Amtrak from the restrictions of the freight railroads. Many of the on-time problems you mentioned are because other than in the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak runs on rails owned by the freight companies, who understandably tend to favor their own trains over Amtrak's.

Secondly, we need to make a national investment in rail infrastructure equivalent to that we make for airlines and cars. We spend much more per mile traveled on aviation and road infrastructure than we do on rail, which is why Amtrak can't even provide a European-quality high speed rail train in the Northeast. Some of the tunnels in Baltimore that trains run through date almost to the Civil War! Amtrak should aim to break even eventually operationally...but if trucking and companies don't have to build highways and airlines don't build airports, why should Amtrak have to build and pay for new rail lines?

Posted by: Railfan | July 21, 2008 9:16 AM

Amtrak should get the same subsidies that the airlines and trucks get. In my world there wouldnt be any subsidies foranyone but Amtrak deserves a level playing field so it can compete with planes and cars. 1cent of the gas tax should got to Amtrak.

If the auto manufactures trucking and air trnsport lobby dont like then elminate all subsidies.

However, we also need to realize the rail system in Europe is based on gas taxes that our a few dollars per gallon not 40 or so cents. And the Us is a heck of lot bigger than Europe.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 21, 2008 10:12 AM

Trucks and planes are supported by the gas taxes and other fees payed by the users.
Amtrak is the one receiving subsidies as it's users don't begin to pay the costs incurred. Intercity train travel outside the Northeast corrider will never be cost effective and should be eliminated.

Posted by: bnichols | July 21, 2008 10:37 AM

My husband and I, along with our infant son, recently traveled from NC to NY on Amtrak's Crescent. It was a very enjoyable way to travel despite the 2 am boarding time in Charlotte. We had a sleeping unit - not a suite, but still comfortable for our purposes. The cars did seem rather old and in need of overhauling, but not to the point that I would hesitate taking Amtrak again. In fact, we have already talked about possibly taking that same line down to New Orleans for a long weekend, or maybe going out to the southwest to visit family there.

I guess I am not really surprised that the Bush White House can't see how important it is to support the railway. I agree with the earlier poster who pointed out that the passenger trains must defer to the freight trains - seems like that system could be tweaked to reach a better solution. I would also note that service in the dining car was absolutely horrible - the food was fine, but the servers were surly and never came back to refil drinks or see if we needed anything else. Same with the club car. A little customer service goes a long way. The folks who took care of the sleeping car, on the other hand, were charming.

Posted by: recent traveler | July 21, 2008 10:38 AM

Alrighty - I just joined a regional rail coalition, so I've been getting a history lesson. I'll pass some of it on.

Amtrak and passenger rail need to be privatized.

Amtrak is a government-owned corporation, and has it's routes in trying to *save* passenger rail. It declined through the early to mid parts of the 20th century, due to the construction of the Interstate system and the expansion of air travel which were backed by the government. But the federal government taxed and regulated the hell out of rail at the same time, which made rail less attractive to ride and to run - there was simply no profit in it for the owners and routes were eliminated when they could no longer be run affordably.

While I suppose we should actually thank Nixon for preserving passenger rail, the day of government-owned rail should be over.

(I say "should" because, hey, is there anyone left in this company that knows how to run a railroad? Or wouldn't just be in it for short term gain, instead of long-term steady profit?)

There is now a demand for rail as an alternative to driving and flying. So let's look at opening rail back up to private industry. Because whenever you build a rail system people will use it.

As for me, I'm still stumped over who I'm going to vote for come November. But I know McCain has a big X mark against him, since he is so anti-Amtrak. And it's not a surprise Bush wants to cut funding. Anything that might actually benefit the American people as a whole and negatively impact Big Oil? Well, of course he's not going to fund it.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | July 21, 2008 11:10 AM

Raise the carbon/gas tax.
Some portion of the increase could go toward all mass transit, including inter and intra city rail and bus, some towards new technologies, alternate fuels, subsidizing those truly needy, fixing the road and bridge and tunnel infrastructure, etc.
Better to pay ourselves, and put a realistic price, on a dwindling resource, then to have all of those Trillion$ floating overseas.

Posted by: Oy! | July 21, 2008 11:40 AM

I don't agree with the author's Amtrak bashing painted in such broad strokes, (typical of a blog). I've traveled the NEC and LD and enjoyed good service and time performance on both.

Privatization is not the answer. No public transit, even air, makes money these days.

The answer is fair and balanced gov't and private investment into rail infrastructure benefiting freight and passenger movement together.

Posted by: Steve | July 21, 2008 11:53 AM

Amtrak should commit to turning a profit the same year I-95 does.

Posted by: Dirty Davey | July 21, 2008 12:12 PM

Privatization, is an option, but who will want to sink in the major funds needed. There are certainly many heavy industry workers, who would love to start building things again. They would be needed to build the rolling stock that would be needed. But would the unions interfere, to such an extent that entrepreneurs, would decide the investment wasn't worth the possible future headaches?
Do we have enough workers that are willing to lay new track, so that the passenger trains wont have to always ask permission to utilize freight lines? Will the steel companies be willing to pay workers in America to produce the new rails needed ( unless some new type of track would be layed) If new track is layed, is there available land, or will a significant portion need to be purchased from current owners? Lots of questions.

Posted by: rja112 | July 21, 2008 1:16 PM

The government needs to put more money into Amtrak so it can make the improvements necessary. The Bush White House claims all along they feel America's pain in regards to the economy, yet he decides he wants to cut funding for one of the only ways Americans can travel without being hit by gas prices.
Never have I been so ashamed to be an American.

Posted by: . | July 21, 2008 1:50 PM

No big surprise here that the Bush administration wants to cut support to Amtrak. This administration never fails to attempt to shut down any service that's positive to the average citizen.

I think the federal government should level the playing field for passenger rail travel and subsidize it to the same level as highway and air travel.

Plus, even if cross-country rail travel isn't feasible due to our size, there is no reason why we can't have regional rail systems so that people can travel easily in a particular area.

Posted by: Little Red | July 21, 2008 4:21 PM

I'm sad to report that the city near where I grew up, Scranton, PA, home of the Steamtown Nat'l Historic Site full of locomotives, does not even have passenger rail service today. Although they have been proposing a link to NYC for years (hasn't happened yet though).

Somewhat related but also notable is that Scranton is called the Electric City because it was the home of the first electric streetcar system in the country, in 1886.

Posted by: skijmpr | July 21, 2008 7:17 PM

Maybe if we didn't spend all our resources keeping liquids off of planes we'd have the cash to fund rail.

Posted by: NoVAHockey | July 22, 2008 3:06 PM

The GOP has tried to strangle Amtrak for years now, pretty much every time they've had any power to try. You can't run a barebones operation and then wonder why it can't succeed.

The wonderful rail networks in places like western Europe and Japan have been subsidized (real subsidies, not the scraps Amtrak gets) for years. No surprise, Europe's transportation policies (see "gas taxes" and "urban sprawl") have been far more forward looking than ours, for years now.

It perversely makes sense why the Bushies and GOP in general won't support rail though, Amtrak doesn't help out Big Oil, or large consulting firms like Haliburton, the religious right are weaker on the coasts Amtrak most heavily serves, and your ultra-rich don't ride it (so none of the true GOP constituencies benefit from it). The rest of us normal people suffer as a result. Yes people, your votes have made a difference!

Posted by: omars | July 23, 2008 10:33 AM

First, I have read the "rant" and every comment and here is my $.02. Maybe Bush has ridden on an Amtrak train or knows some one who has and thinks they would change their ways if they had to make a living off of their customers instead of having the freedom of abusing them because they are the only nation wide passenger train. The train comes through here in the very early AM so I got the sleeper for that half and coach for the return trip. The train was 5.5hrs late so the sleeper was a huge waste of money, you don't need a sleeper if you leave in broad daylight. For 5.5hrs the only two passengers waiting for the train had to guard each others bags to go to the restroom because of all the homeless and winos roaming around and asking for money. The desk clerk would do nothing and was very rude and surly and spent all her time on her cell phone. There were 3 conductors (that I saw)on the train, one seemed to be on drugs and walked around with his chest stuck out and his pupils were very pinpointed, one smelled of alcohol (no whiskey or beer smell so it must have been vodka), the other seemed to be new and kept their mouth shut. The first two moved people from spot to spot and then back again arguing with each other until I finally had enough and threatened them with calling the police on my cell phone and having them drug tested at the next station.
My point here is if you have to make a living and you are not subsidized and living off of free money you could not afford to keep people like these conductors nor the surly dinning car staff, nor charge $8.75 for a hamburger nor $9 for an omelet, etc. They do such things because they can, they get away with it because it cost them nothing. Blame it on the rails being owned by freighters, blame it on high fuel or lack of more government funding or blame it on sun spots if you want to but any time you treat your own customers like they are your enemies you are putting your own self out of business...and out of business is exactly where you deserve to be. What have they gained by having soooo many empty train seats and empty dinning car seats and sooo many surly employees....and not addressing those issues *on the level that the customer experiences them*? Well maybe, just maybe what they gain is even more government money so they do not have to change their ways of doing business so they will be able to support their on selves. If I was in Washington and given the task of figuring out how to fix Amtrak the first thing I would do is send people on trips to see what is wrong with it and why they have so many empty seats because of dissatisfied former customers.

Posted by: Stumble_Bum2 | July 23, 2008 10:39 AM

I recently traveled Amtrak Sacramento to Seattle. I had forgotten how utterly spectacular the scenery is--it rivals Swiss Alps and New England color change. The trip? I sincerely believe that there is a deliberate design to make the trains nearly derelict. Everything was awful, including the tracks. The timing? Apparently a joke, with hours of delay. Having ridden trains all over the world, I would say that the narrow gauge train trip from Nairobi to Ugande was far superior.

Posted by: Ruth Gottstein | July 23, 2008 12:54 PM

My husband and I went from New Orleans to LA last year having to drive from Orlando because of the Katrina fiasco. The tracks taken out by Katrina have never been fixed. We had a sleeper, good meals, courteous service and were 1 hour late getting in to LA. The return trip was delayed out of LA for 4 hours because ??? We live in a small town outside Orlando, two miles from an Amtrak station, complete with the surly personnel, in a bad part of town, etc. GOP, Bush, McBush will never fund this system adequately to bring it out of the dark ages. Not with private jets, Air Force One, and all the perks of the ruling elite. Private tracks for Amtrak? It would take a decade to purchase the land (most of it thru eminent domain) and then an army of foreign workers to lay the tracks. Gone are the days of the railroad barons who laid track thru the wilderness. Today, it would be thru inner city slums were the freight lines are now.
If this country doesn't get it's energy program off the ground and it's citizens wake up to the fact that we are falling behind in technology, infrastructure, and economic solvency, we will no longer be a super power. The time for talk is over. There are intelligent leaders with ideas who need to step up to the plate, get in the game and retire the old timers in DC back home to the farm, preferable by train or even a beer truck.

Posted by: Rachel | July 23, 2008 8:20 PM

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