Private investment in tracks is needed to fix Amtrak

The history of America is interlaced with the DNA of the double rails that connected its shores from

The history of America is interlaced with the DNA of the double rails that connected its shores from Atlantic to Pacific.

Our national rail systems are almost a metaphor for our national history, encompassing the energy of industry with the romantic images of train travel as the most civilized form of moving from one place to another.

Our popular culture is full of train songs, train movies, train stories, in good times and bad. Almost every child who has traveled on a train has vivid memories of the experience, and passes it on to their children. Every small town, certainly here in Schoharie county, has a connection with trains.

So why is it that recent headlines about derailments, explosions, tragic wrecks and grim economic predictions cast such a shadow on this mode of transport so important in the rest of the world?

It’s money, primarily, and a long history of treating rail passenger travel as the unwelcome and expensive stepchild of our modern transportation systems.

Amtrak was created in 1970 with President Nixon’s signing of the Rail Passenger Service Act, after private rail companies terminated services or went bankrupt. It was a shaky start, with the administration and railroads privately agreeing that it wouldn’t last two years, and would be dismantled.

Amtrak got no tracks or rights-of-way, and had to pay rent for tracks owned by freight carriers. These tracks had been neglected for decades as railroads squeezed the last nickel of profit out of them. In addition, the infrastructure was old, with some bridges and tunnels dating from the Civil War.

In spite of this chronic underfunding, lack of trackage, recycled rolling stock and absence of support services (stations, subsidies for safety and connecting facilities, land grants and other provisions common for highway and airport travel), Amtrak was expected to become self-sufficient. This was odd, since no form of passenger transportation is self-sufficient.

Much to the surprise of governmental and private observers, Amtrak survived and slowly grew, its ridership doubling between 1972 and 2014, even with severe pruning of the routes it inherited from the private rail companies.

Theoretically, freight rail is required under federal law to give priority to Amtrak trains. But in practice, this did not always happen, causing on-time performance to become a joke. When it was practiced, however, some trains’ performance jumped as much as 73 percent. The U.S. Department of Energy considers Amtrak among the most energy-efficient forms of transportation, and will be more so if electrification of engines continues.

As long as Amtrak is hamstrung by budgets allocated on a yearly basis, with much political wrangling and lobbying, long-term programs and planning are not possible. Yet ridership is growing. And where track is owned by Amtrak and state departments of transportation (mainly in the Northeast Corridor), it is a success.

Calls for privatization of Amtrak continue, now that its value is growing, which surprises no one. But federal investment in infrastructure will primarily benefit the private freight companies, and Amtrak only coincidentally.

To paraphrase another political response, “It’s the tracks, stupid.”

As long as Amtrak is forced to ride on old neglected tracks, bridges and tunnels, it won’t matter if the cars and locomotives are modern and high-speed.

According to Trains Magazine, freight railroads had a banner year in 2014. Will any of those profits, and those of other years, be used to fix infrastructure? Should the U.S. taxpayer subsidize rail travel as we do airports and the interstate highway system? If we did, we would have the best rail system on Earth.

But as long as the money goes into private pockets instead of public use, this won’t happen. In 2008, we paid $8 billion to cruise-ship security, $10 billion from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund, nearly $3 billion to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). That year, Amtrak was allocated $1.4 billion.

In 2010, its fare revenue generated 79 percent of its costs. Even with appropriations cut in half during the Reagan Administration, Amtrak continued to survive.

So how do we continue the American love affair with trains? Do we privatize these national assets, as many are suggesting? Or do we consider Amtrak a national treasure on a par with our national parks, and fix it?

It won’t be cheap. But if the cost is shared by those who own the crumbling infrastructure, it just might work out for everybody.

Karen Cookson — a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette Opinion page — lives in Sharon Springs near the old D&H railbed and is a frequent railroader.

Categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply