- I was surprised and disappointed at the anti-Amtrak stance expressed
in Issues 36 and 37 of Carfree Times.
First, I am puzzled that an advocate of completely-subsidized ransit
describes Amtrak as "heavily-subsidized." The Federal subsidy to
Amtrak is a mere $1.2 billion annually. That's one-point-two
billion. By contrast:
(a) the highway system receives over $30 billion each year from the
(b) most European passenger rail systems receive a multiple of this
amount of tax funding to serve nations only a fraction of the size
of the US. For example, the UK government plans to invest the Euro
equivalent of $74 billion over 10 years in the national railways
(admittedly, freight as well as passenger). That's $7.4 billion a
year, compared with $1.2 billion here.
Of particular importance in light of your advocacy of fareless
transit is the fact that Amtrak's farebox recovery is much higher
than most (if not all) North American transit agencies. To state
that in layman's terms for other readers, a greater percentage of
Amtrak's budget comes from passengers in the form of fares, and a
smaller percentage from taxpayers, than almost any American urban or
commuter transit system.
In short, Amtrak is hardly as "heavily-subsidized" as you describe.
What really knocked my socks off was the following passage:
"I suspect that a new operator will keep the more sensible parts of
the system running, in particular the heavily-traveled Northeast
Corridor route between Boston and Washington. Some of the long-haul
service in the western part of the country simply makes no economic
sense and is pulling down the whole system."
With all due respect, it is an old canard that the NEC and other
corridors are a success and the long-distance routes are a failure.
It's a position routinely taken by the supporters of a car-and-plane-
only intercity travel system that I wouldn't expect an intelligent
advocate of carfree living to swallow.
First and foremost, not even the NEC is profitable, if that's what
you mean by "makes economic sense". Almost no nation on Earth
operates intercity passenger trains at a profit, even high-speed
trains like the French TGVs or the German ICEs.
The "long-haul service in the western part of the country" you
blithely condemn makes perfect sense because a long-distance route
is essentially a series of corridor operations laid end to end. A
Chicago-San Francisco train is not like a Chicago-San Francisco
flight: by making stops at cities along the tracks, it is also a
Chicago-Omaha, Omaha-Denver, Denver-Salt Lake City, etc. train. Long-
distance trains also stop at the smaller communities inbetween the
cities, where air travel is either ridiculously expensive or non-
existent. Without rail service to these communities, most non-
wealthy travelers from such communities would be forced to drive or
take a bus, either of which add to the road congestion and pollution
that you rightly condemn elsewhere on your website.
Population density is not the prerequisite to effective rail service
that it would first seem to be. For example, Amtrak's daily Empire
Builder train is the only alternative to driving along much of its
rural route through North Dakota and Montana. As a result, its
ridership from many of these rural stations is actually higher than
from cities along the route like Minneapolis or Spokane that have
decent air and freeway service.
Nobody is advocating the same level of service for the long-distance
routes as for the great corridors. Of course New York-Washington
would have more ridership, and support more trains, than longer
routes like New York-Chicago or Chicago-Los Angeles. But serving
these longer routes with two or three round-trips a day (the service
now, with the present stingy level of funding, is only one train a
day on most long-distance routes) is both a viable and necessary
alternative to forcing intercity travelers along these routes to
"Amtrak's operations have often been so inept," as you say, because
Amtrak is grossly underfunded and cannot afford either the equipment
or the expert personnel that allow a commuter operation like
Chicago's famously efficient Metra to run like clockwork. Metra,
like Amtrak, has to operate many of its routes on the rails of
freight railway companies, but because it is adequately funded, it
can pay the freight railway a sufficient rent with sufficiently
attractive on-time-based incentives and penalties for the host
This brings me to the unspoken heart of your article "Amtrak
Subsidizes Rail Deaths": that Amtrak is gleefully extending the perq
of indemnification to their partners-in-crime, the freight railways.
First and foremost, it is my understanding that the indemnification
provisions were NOT secret but were readily-available knowledge.
The mere fact that the Times publicizes something to the general
public doesn't mean that it was **hidden** before they published.
Secondly, Amtrak did not freely choose to put such admittedly
onerous indemnification provisions in their contracts. As stated
above, Amtrak doesn't have the money to negotiate toe-to-toe as
equals with the freight railways for the use of their tracks. Not
being able to pay the freights what it actually costs them (or what
they perceive it costs them) in delays to their own trains to carry
Amtrak trains, Amtrak pretty much had to "take it or leave it" with
anything the freights insisted on putting in the trackage contracts.
The proof that Amtrak was dragooned into these provisions is that
where Amtrak has had a real choice in its contracting -- where
Amtrak was a potential bidder to operate commuter rail systems under
contract to the local transit agency -- it has patently refused to
include such provisions. The MBTA in Boston, and Metrolink in Los
Angeles IIRC, insisted like the freights that the operator be liable
and hold the agency harmless regardless of whether the operator was
at fault, and Amtrak simply refused to enter a bid on those terms.
I apologize for my exasperation in portions of this message, but I
am still surprised that a clear supporter of rail and opponent of
dependence on the automobile could take the anti-Amtrak position
that you have. I urge you, as a clearly intelligent person capable
of thinking "outside the box" (to use a cliche), to do a little
research on the Amtrak question. An excellent place to begin would
be the website of the National Association of Rail Passengers:
Thank you for your time and patience,
John B. Bredin
- OK, one more time -- then I'm finished with this one.
On Fri, 7 Jan 2005, emccaughrin wrote:
> > Yes, but we were talking about rail service in vast, unpopulated
> > rural places.
> Um, no. The discussion is about rail service to cities in the west,
> not to some cattle ranch way out in the plains somewhere. There are
> large metropolitan areas in the west -- Denver, Salt Lake City, to
> name a few -- with populations large enough to justify rail service,
> and not so far apart that rail cannot be competitive.
Well, that's two ;^)
I have no problem with competitive rail service in the west. Indeed, I'm a fan and have ridden many of the long-haul trains in the region. I'd simply rather spend the subsidy money in more productive ways (I have a list).
Of course, if passenger service between those city pairs really is competitive, the railroads will be eager to provide it.
> Norway has 300k km^2 and a population of 4.5 million. If one were to
> go by a naive interpretation of its 15 persons/km^2 density, Norway
> has no business running passenger rail because at it isn't "dense"
> enough -- and yet it runs comprehensive, 140mph rail service that is
> far better than anything you will find in even the most heavily
> populated US metropolitan area.
Come on, now. Norway's rail system is heavily concentrated in the more-populated southern part of the country. To the extent that it does serve the northern portions (does it extend beyond Bodo?), let's remember that we're talking about a long, very narrow corridor.
To put things in perspective (again), the Norwegian national rail network totals about 2,500 miles of track -- just a little more than the route of our oft-cited, lonely American long-haul, the Empire Builder.
Not to let this end without further (perhaps naive) reference to population density, the state of Montana, alone, is larger than Norway and, at 2.39 persons per square kilometer, is about *one-sixth* as densely populated.
I just don't think the arguments for subsidizing rural passenger rail service in the US are persuasive, definitely not in a resource-constrained world. Certainly, there are many other subsidies on which I'd merrily pull the plug, also (autos, airlines, ranchers and loggers, warmongers and arms merchants...), but, if given the chance to divert the handout from Amtrak to a really useful urban project, I'd do it in a heartbeat.
I suppose I should close by confessing that it would be fine with me if *all* long-distance travel was relatively difficult and (at least) moderately expensive. In a world of six-plus billion humans with an emerging permanent energy crunch, it is dangerous folly to encourage casual gallivanting around the globe.
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