Realign Amtrak

Today the Senate will vote on whether to give Amtrak a record $1.6 billion in subsidies for next year and still more for a loan bailout. This is wrong. It's past time for someone in Congress to apply the brakes to the run-away Amtrak train.

The bill at issue, promoted by Senators Lott, Clinton, and Schumer, aims to reform Amtrak. But it is only a pretend reform. One problem is that it prohibits competition against Amtrak’s monopoly by private contractors who have taken over and improved trains in Europe, Australia and South America and won contests against Amtrak to run commuter trains in Boston, Los Angeles and San Diego. The bill allows domestic freight railroads to bid on any one Amtrak route in 2008, but freight lines like Union Pacific and CSX have made it clear they have no interest in doing so. Hence, the Senate bill thumbs its nose at innovative solutions that 56 nations have applied to their Amtrak-like problems.

A transportation expert at the Heritage Foundation, Ron Utt, hits the nail on the head when he notes that the proposals taken as a whole fall short of real reforms: "It is replete with directives, alterations, restructurings, subsidies, studies, reports, metrics, five-year plans, transitions, and other forms of top-down micromanagement designed to create the impression that spinning wheels represent forward movement."

You'd think Congress would have learned something about Amtrak's wastefulness at some point during the first $31 billion lawmakers spent subsidizing intercity rail, but that’s far from the case. On the contrary, some senators, in dread of offending a few train enthusiasts, refuse to cut funds that preserve Amtrak's worst trains, which are the long-distance trains that resemble a rolling pork barrel.

Which is an odd state of affairs given that fears of voter backlash over Amtrak are groundless. Over time Amtrak has closed market-irrelevant routes in 20 states, ending service in places as large as Las Vegas and as small as Bowling Green, Ky. Only a few nostalgic types got choked up over it. Today, 105 communities that used to have Amtrak trains are without them and taxpayers are better off for it. Many members of Congress haven't mustered the votes to preserve their hometown train, but not once in Amtrak's 35-year history has a community ousted one of them in the election cycle after the end of train service.

In short, Amtrak is a ballot-box irrelevancy. Maybe upon recognizing that fact, senators will drop their push to increase Amtrak funding by an outrageous $11.4 billion over the next six years.

While they're at it, senators should also dump the proposed federal bailout of $1.7 billion in Amtrak debts. When Amtrak defaulted on loans in 1983, the federal government assumed responsibility for a $1.12 billion note that matures on Nov. 1, 2082 (no joke). Hence, someone born today will pay taxes on Amtrak’s debt until he is 76 years old. The earlier bailout was based on the promise that Amtrak would find it easier to financially succeed. Big spenders in both parties are making the same false promises that were made in the 1980s.

Cutting Amtrak's budget needn’t harm Amtrak's busiest routes like the Boston to Washington line. A whopping 50% of Amtrak riders use just 10% of the system. Amtrak is anemic in much of the country; only about 100 people board Amtrak in an entire day in each of a dozen states. A child with reasonable math skills could determine which trains should survive and which should go the way of the stagecoach. Cutting obsolete routes would also free up resources for critical infrastructure improvements such as fixing the dangerously outdated tunnels into and out of Manhattan. Amtrak's longstanding failure to do this makes the support from New York's senators even more inexplicable.

Moreover, Amtrak, by owning key facilities like Penn Station, threatens to shut down whenever it needs more money from Congress, a despicable way to treat commuters aboard all those trains from Long Island and New Jersey. On Wednesday, Gov. Corzine talked about taking over the New York-Trenton portion of Amtrak's line in an attempt to alleviate Amtrak's many service breakdowns. Massachusetts and Connecticut have done just that by owning tracks where commuter trains far outnumber Amtrak trains.

It's instructive to look at other models where Amtrak-style systems were dumped in favor of privatization. We could look to Japan, Argentina and even Mexico, but the best example is in Britain.

There, Prime Minister John Major broke up the broken down British Rail system, franchised its routes to private companies who bid to operate them, and the trains experienced phenomenal success. Ridership was in a virtually continuous downward spiral under British Rail for decades, but today the competitive companies are setting records for the number of passengers served. In the 2003-4 reporting period, more than 1.1 billion passenger journeys were made on Britain's railway system--the highest level since 1947. Britain now has Europe's fastest-growing railway--ahead even of Spain and France, whose state-run railways have started new high-speed train services.

This is significant because on weekdays the British system carries approximately 3 million passengers, about forty times the number Amtrak carries. The increase alone in British train traffic since privatization is greater than Amtrak’s total ridership, a staggering fact.

Moreover, Britain is in the midst of a massive replacement of its old passenger trains as twelve franchisees are running gleaming new locomotives and passenger cars. As of this year, Britain has one of the youngest train fleets in Europe. Chris Green, chief executive of Virgin Rail and a former British Rail managing director, has said that much of the fleet replacement simply would not have happened had British Rail been preserved.

Amtrak's status-quo defenders leap to point out that turning the tracks over to a private company named Railtrack, whose makeup was affected in so many bizarre ways by the legislation that created it that it indeed failed to properly maintain and improve the tracks. Amtrak and its defenders generally point to Britain's Railtrack as a reason not to privatize Amtrak, but the argument is hollow because no reformer is suggesting incorporating that part of the British model into the American system.

A few years ago, U.K. Transport Minister Alistair Darling said, "There are 1,300 more weekday scheduled train services than there were in 1997." And none of them are like the Acela Express, whose failure rate is the highest of any high-speed train anywhere in the world. Despite track problems, the private operators have demonstrated more initiative, imagination, and visionary planning than state-run British Rail did in its prime or Amtrak does today.

Not only could Congress cut Amtrak’s funding without negative political repercussions, there is praise to be earned among the growing group of independent voters who are watching during a time of greater taxpayer anger over spending.

Joseph Vranich is the author of End of the Line: The Failure of Amtrak Reform and the Future of America's Passenger Trains (AEI Press).
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