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Archive for Monday, August 19, 2002

Americans back Amtrak

August 19, 2002

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— Taking a train from here to New York is easy, convenient and relatively cheap. You catch the Metro to Union Station, take the escalator upstairs to buy a ticket, wait at the gate, and settle into a comfortable seat to read, sleep, talk or observe the scenery. A few hours later, you emerge from below ground into Manhattan.

There is no taxi ride to the hinterlands, no long wait in line, no emptying your bag, no close examination of your shoes or waistband. Your glasses and fountain pen do not arouse suspicion; your pen knife or nail file remain in your pocket. No one inquires if anyone asked you to transport a bomb. You are not reminded of the possibility that you might drown or require oxygen.

If you're thirsty, you don't have to wait for a tray to arrive; you simply walk to the dining car. If you would rather not watch the latest Adam Sandler movie, you are not obliged to hunker down to read or doze; you can gaze out the window at the Maryland countryside, downtown Wilmington, Del., or rural New Jersey.

If the difference between air travel and passenger train service were this decisive, we would be arguing about subsidies for struggling airlines and locations for new train stations. But America is a big country, Americans are impatient, and most of us travel on business. It would be nice to get from here to Omaha, Neb., or Memphis, Tenn., by train just as it would be nice to travel to Europe by ocean liner but few of us have the time to devote to "getting there."

Passenger train service is successful where the population is concentrated and distances are modest. That is why the Northeast Corridor is Amtrak's most lucrative route, and the East Coast is the bedrock of support for passenger rail service.

But in fact, according to a recent Washington Post poll, most Americans like the idea of passenger trains, and strongly support subsidizing Amtrak. And those subsidies are not trivial: Amtrak lost over a billion dollars last year, and was granted an emergency $100 million loan last month to keep the trains running for the next several weeks.

Some argue that taxpayers should not be obliged to resuscitate an industry that consumers don't require. Most Americans travel relatively infrequently by train, and more do it for pleasure than business. Amtrak offers a number of alluring routes around the country through the South, across the Rockies, in the Pacific Northwest but they are as much an investment in time as anything else, and don't make money.

Yet the libertarian argument begs this question: Does everything the government does have to pass a profitability test? Of course not. And if the public likes passenger train service, the government would be foolish to cut the lifeline.

And in that sense, public sentiment is unmistakable. When asked by the Washington Post poll if the federal government should end all federal aid to Amtrak, increase aid or maintain it at current levels, the majority (51 percent) opted to keep funding at current levels, 20 percent wanted an increase, and only 17 percent thought federal subsidies should cease. Moreover, when the people who opted for current levels of funding were asked to choose between ending all aid or increasing federal assistance, 58 percent said they would increase funding and 29 percent said they would cut it.

I take this to mean that while Americans may generally prefer to travel by car or airplane, they are uncomfortable with the prospect of a country without passenger train service. So if Amtrak is chronically unprofitable, is there any other approach to the problem?

One suggestion is to examine Amtrak itself, a quasi-government agency created three decades ago to consolidate failing commercial lines and "streamline" passenger service. There is no particular reason why passenger rail service should be confined exclusively to Amtrak, which will probably never be profitable and always will be reliant on federal subsidies.

Moreover, there is considerable evidence that Amtrak (or any passenger rail service) would benefit from practical efficiencies and business discipline that federal subsidies have postponed. For that matter, what is to prevent states that rely on rail from entering into more partnerships with Amtrak (or any passenger line) to divide costs and increase service?

Nothing except for the persistence of two misconceptions. One is that Amtrak, and passenger rail service generally, must succeed only on the terms under which Amtrak was established in the early 1970s. The other is that institutions such as Amtrak must be profitable. Is that so? Everyone agrees that inefficiencies should be remedied, and Amtrak subject to rigorous management. But the American people clearly want passenger rail service, and are willing to pay for it, one way or another.

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