The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

20 November 2005

Train in vain?

Jon at Plum Crazy reprints a newsletter from the Regional Plan Association which, in its call for the reinstatement of sacked Amtrak President David Gunn, makes a few points about passenger rail itself:

Gunn, the former head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, had an imminently practical vision for restoring and improving the nation's intercity rail service that was very similar to how he restored and improved subway and commuter rail systems in this region in the 1980s. He eschewed dreams of fancy European high-speed rail, or libertarian management schemes built on the virtues of privatization. Instead, Gunn focused on unglamorous tasks like repairing or replacing wrecked cars, crumbling tracks and ancient catenary lines.

I think they meant "eminently," unless said vision was actually on the verge of becoming practical.

Using tried and true technology, Gunn maintained that Amtrak could soon have trains whipping between cities within major regions at more than 110 mph. True, that's not the 200 mph of France, Germany and Japan, but it was a practical and affordable vision, Gunn said.

Oklahoma's Heartland Flyer tops out at 79 mph, until it crosses the Red River and slows to 59. Not too bad, since I-35 construction has made it difficult to maintain that speed on the highway; but a 110-mph train would make it to Fort Worth in a mere two hours, which would likely both bring in more riders and justify increasing the fare.

All that was needed for this was a healthy level of government funding. But here things stopped. For some reason, many rail opponents believe that building and maintaining a road, port or airport at government expense is fine, but to do so for a railroad is wasteful socialism. This obtuse and easily refuted argument has nevertheless repeatedly stalled Amtrak.

Your hard-core libertarians wouldn't make this distinction: they'd consider them all socialist.

The irony is that more support exists across ideological lines for swift, dependable train service than ever before. People and politicians who actually live in the Northeast, mid Atlantic, Florida, Northwest, California Coast, and Gulf Coast deal with overburdened highways and beleaguered airports and are willing and even eager to spend taxpayer dollars for swift, dependable train service. It's no fluke that Sen. Trent Lott, a Southern conservative, and [Sen. Frank] Lautenberg, a Northeastern liberal, have attempted to save Amtrak from the Bush administration's privatization schemes.

The National Association of Railroad Passengers, a lobbying group founded in the 1960s before the creation of Amtrak, had this to say about Gunn's departure:

There is obvious concern that removal of Mr. Gunn is the first step in an effort to kill the rail passenger business. However, Amtrak Chairman David Laney, in a message to employees today, cited Amtrak's April strategic plan and budget request and wrote: "The good news in this strategic plan is that we can improve Amtrak, upgrade service in the vital Northeast Corridor, expand rail services in densely populated and increasingly congested corridors across the country, and bring more economic discipline to Amtrak's long distance services."

We endorse those goals so long as "economic discipline" does not mean route cuts, or making the trains unattractive to travelers.

No surprises here.

As for Lott and Lautenburg, this is the gist of their proposal. One interesting provision calls for a method to return an Amtrak route to the host railroad (Amtrak owns very little actual track itself), should that railroad be interested.

All else being equal, I'd like to have as many transportation options as possible, with as many providers as circumstances permit. The Bush administration talks of turning the railroads over to the states, which has a certain philosophical appeal, but would 49 state subsidies (I'm assuming Hawaii doesn't want to be put on the national rail grid) be an improvement over one federal subsidy? I'm thinking multi-state compacts: one to govern the BosWash megalopolis, for instance. Closer to home, perhaps Texas and Oklahoma could work together on the Flyer.

The purist position here would be "Let it die"; if a route doesn't make money, it should be abandoned. But no form of mass transportation is truly self-sufficient: roads and airports are built mostly with taxpayer funds. The real question, for me, is this: Can a passenger railroad over long distances actually make money if it doesn't have to allow for all the cost inefficiencies inherent in a governmental quasi-monopoly? Would the Flyer work better if BNSF ran it?

On the Flyer, traffic was up 23 percent last year, so demand isn't a problem. Taking the train to Fort Worth and back runs a maximum of $98; airline fares vary, but this morning's Southwest fares to Dallas Love Field and back run a minimum of $39 each way plus whatever airport charges may apply, so in general, the train is competitive on price. I'm thinking this route could survive whatever happens to Amtrak.

Posted at 10:26 AM to Political Science Fiction

A private individual can operate a car, boat or airplane.

Kinda hard for someone who isn't a government-owned passenger railroad to operate a passenger train...

Posted by: McGehee at 9:49 PM on 20 November 2005

There would be legal issues to hammer out, mostly stemming from the liability rules set forth when Amtrak (then Railpax) was created, but BNSF, were it so inclined, could run the Flyer on its own tracks, or it could contract with someone else (well, someone else who owned some railroad cars).

Posted by: CGHill at 7:43 AM on 21 November 2005

I'm still trying to figure out why Hawaii has an interstate highway?

Posted by: Dwayne "the canoe guy" at 11:12 AM on 21 November 2005

So they could get the appropriate Federal funds, I assume.

And I-99 in Pennsylvania never leaves the Keystone State, come to think of it.

Posted by: CGHill at 11:18 AM on 21 November 2005