NY Times Rail Editorial
Published on Tuesday, February 19, 2002 in the New York Times
Rethinking Rail Travel
The nation's highway system does not make a profit. Nor does the commercial aviation system. Nor does passenger rail. However, only one of these three vital links in America's transportation network, the railroad, is being asked to break even. Congress must abandon its fantasy that Amtrak can be self-sufficient. Only then can it engage in an honest debate about the kind of passenger rail system the country needs, and how to pay for it.
In 1997, in exchange for meager subsidies, Congress required that Amtrak be "operationally
self-sufficient" by December of this year, or else. It is "or else" time, and the Amtrak Reform Council, created by the same law, is calling for radical restructuring. The council suggests that Amtrak be broken up into a regulatory agency, a regional body to assume ownership of the Northeast corridor track and an operating company. It would also like to open up certain routes to private competitors.
The council raises valid questions about Amtrak's accountability under the current arrangement, but new bureaucracies and privatization are not necessarily the solution. The fundamental problem undermining the nation's rail system, after all, is chronic underinvestment.
Ever since Congress created it in 1970 to allow private carriers to focus on hauling freight, Amtrak has been asked to do too much with too little. Amtrak's biggest financial burdens the council calls them unfunded mandates are long-haul trains and maintenance of the Northeast corridor. Amtrak's operating loss in 2001 was $1.1 billion, its largest ever. Long-distance overnight trains carrying 18 percent of all riders account for 75 percent of its loss. Meanwhile, not enough is being invested to upgrade antiquated infrastructure along the shorter, densely traveled corridors where trains make both economic and environmental sense.
Congress and the public need to start thinking of fast, reliable trains that can link major cities in three hours or less as a key part of the overall transportation system's future. Once that happens, the roughly $3 billion a year needed over the next two decades to develop these high-speed corridors across the country will seem like a bargain, particularly when compared with what taxpayers spend on aviation and highways.
After Sept. 11, ridership levels soared by 40 percent along the Northeast corridor, where Amtrak trains do make an operating profit. Still, antiquated infrastructure means that the new high- speed Acela trains are unable to run at their optimal, 150-mile-an-hour speed for most of their journey from Boston to Washington.
Crucial capital spending on the route, the Northeast's economic lifeline, should not be held hostage by the tiresome debates over Amtrak's annual appropriations. Instead, Washington should be focused on fundamental policy choices. Two come immediately to mind. One is to establish a source of dedicated revenue for the development of high-speed rail, much as highways and commercial aviation have their own trust funds. The other is to consider abandoning the long-haul routes, or to at least finance them separately, in such a manner that they do not take dollars away from the sensible development of high-speed corridors.
Long-distance trains with such evocative names as the Empire Builder and the Sunset Limited may have nostalgia value for train buffs and political value for members of Congress whose districts they service. But when one assesses the nation's transportation needs and available resources, it is hard not to conclude that they are an unaffordable extravagance. An honest debate about the future of passenger rail is long overdue. If it takes place, America can still salvage and strengthen the train system it really needs.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company