Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Disappearing Railroad Blues

"Good mornin' America, how are ya? Say, don't you know me? I'm your native son."

I suppose I am a bit partial to using lyrics in my blog, but they often seem so appropriate. These particular words come from Arlo Guthrie’s “The City of New Orleans” lamenting the death of that train running between New Orleans and Chicago under the now-fallen flag of the Illinois Central Railroad. The Coast Starlight (shown in picture waiting at Seattle's King Street Station) would also likely be deleted if Mr. Bush follows through with his veto threat.

Those sentimental words belie the urgency that many felt at the time as passenger services across the country began to falter. The time, I'm afraid, has come again. Mr. Bush is once again prepared to destroy a part of America's infrastructure.

Today, the Senate passed bill S.294 with bipartisan support. This bill would reauthorize Amtrak, giving it the funding it needs to continue to serve 46 states. This bill would also continue high speed rail initiatives in many areas and would provide needed Homeland Security funding. The bill now goes to the House for passage, and after that, to the President's desk.

Mr. Bush seems determined to ensure that rail service is dropped in 24 states. He and many conservatives are determined to trim all of Amtrak's long distance (national network) services. Economics, they say, dictate that America stop the subsidization of this unprofitable enterprise. Travel on the Northeast Corridor from Newport News to Boston will probably survive, as will service in California, along the Empire Corridor, Keystone Corridor, and between Eugene, Oregon and Vancouver, British Columbia. Chicago will still play host to the short-haul trains that operate from places like Saint Louis and Milwaukee, but no longer will one be able to ply the rails from sea to shining sea.

Frankly, America needs to get its priorities straight. One of the reasons that Amtrak has almost yearly funding crises, is because it's almost annually starved for funding. Why? Conservatives tell us that we shouldn't reward Amtrak for failing to become self sufficient with a bailout; liberals tell us that Amtrak is a social service. The fact of the matter is that there is truth in both statements, and it is also true that both leave out quite a bit.

Amtrak has conflicting goals. Typically, when a government agency has conflicting goals, it ends up neglecting one and doing poorly at the other. Amtrak is a perfect case study in this phenomenon. Amtrak was set up with two main goals. The first, most obvious, goal is that Amtrak is to operate a national rail system. Therefore Amtrak has an obligation to serve places where density is not conducive to high train ridership. The second goal is that Amtrak should become profitable. This is the goal that Amtrak has neglected. It is not possible for Amtrak to serve all of the United States and turn a profit. We must remember that the entire reason that Amtrak was created was because the private railroad companies were trying to get out of the business of passenger travel.

First, let’s address the neglected goal. The reason that Amtrak cannot be expected to make a profit is the same reason that the railroads asked for the creation of a national passenger system in the first place. Federal subsidies to other modes, most notably air travel and highways, made railroads unable to compete on a level playing field. I am not criticizing things like the Interstate Highway Act, however. Subsidies to highways and air travel caused major positive changes in this country. However, the federal government does not demand that Interstates pay for themselves. The reason is that Interstates pay back this country in ways other than in pure dollars. Railroads do the same thing, and it is essential that passenger service continues to be a viable mode.

A national system will not always be full or profitable, just as an Interstate highway in Idaho won’t ever carry its design capacity or render a true return on investment. In an age of increasing sprawl, oil shocks, and environmental awareness, passenger rail service looks increasingly attractive. As a matter of fact, ridership has been increasing on Amtrak for several years. If anything, this country needs more Amtrak service, not less. A truly national system would offer alternatives to other modes. The federal government should be just as willing to subsidize this mode as it is with other modes. Passenger rail is not a competing mode, but a complimentary mode when looked at from many perspectives, including that of national security. All of us remember the days after September 11, 2001. While the airports were shut down and rental car facilities were empty, our national rail system was still chugging along. Our most energy efficient mode will help to move America away from foreign oil and will mean a cleaner world for our children. The Interstate System is aging rapidly, and needs are far outstripping our ability to meet them. Today, we need Amtrak more than ever.

This year, President Bush should not veto Amtrak; instead he should offer a vision of an America for the Twenty-first Century. That vision must include alternatives, and it must include upgrading America’s transportation infrastructure to accommodate a changing reality. The age of oil is at its end. While Mr. Bush has so far decided to hold out for hydrogen, it is time to realize that we can make a marked difference in consumption now; without major structural change in the way we power our vehicles. Instead of condemning other modes as “social engineering” or as a wasteful social program, Mr. Bush should recognize that the automobile is one of the most subsidized modes on the face of this continent. The federal housing policies that forced Americans into the transit-unfriendly living conditions of today were far more reminiscent of social engineering than any type of national rail program. Mr. Bush should recognize that the power of government lies not in its ability to lay waste to foreign lands, but to create a society built for the betterment of all.

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