Response submitted to Salt Lake City Tribune Op-Ed, August 12, 2005

To the Editor, Salt Lake City Tribune:

Your August 11 editorial “Stop the trains” ignores basic facts about Amtrak’s history and its long-distance service. While the $29 billion Amtrak has received since 1971 may seem like a sizable sum, it pales in comparison to the $1.9 trillion in public subsidies handed to highways and aviation in that same timeframe. The adage “you get what you pay for” rings true.

America’s per-capita spending on passenger rail lags far behind most of the developed world, including Estonia and the former Yugoslavia. Yet, despite their limited reach, Amtrak’s long-distance trains are very popular (high load factors and sold-out trains are the norm), and provide an essential public service.

Your editorial recommends that Amtrak’s customers fly, but fails to mention that hundreds of Amtrak communities have no commercial air service and many more have no discount air service. In addition, many Americans cannot or will not fly or drive. Amtrak provides choice, and aids our national security by providing redundancy in travel options.

Of Amtrak’s $3.2 billion budget in 2005, only $300 million of the $1.2 billion federal appropriation would have been saved by eliminating long-distance trains. Those services yield nearly half of Amtrak’s total passenger-miles, and provide connections to other Amtrak trains. That’s efficiency, not waste.

Amtrak is a sound transportation investment that has proven its worth to the taxpayers.

David Johnson
Assistant Director
National Association of Railroad Passengers 900 Second Street, NE, Suite 308 Washington, DC 20002 202-408-8362, voice 202-408-8287, fax

OP-ED: Stop the trains: Long-distance routes not economically feasible
11 August 2005
Salt Lake Tribune
© Copyright 2005, The Salt Lake Tribune

Trains are more than a mode of transportation; they are icons of American expansion and industry. The wail of a train whistle calls forth a yearning for wanderlust and nostalgia.

But economically, the long-distance routes of Amtrak passenger trains don`t make much sense in the modern era of travel. It costs about the same, sometimes more, to take a 34-hour train ride from Salt Lake City to Chicago as it does a four-hour trip by air. In today`s bustling, competitive business world, those hours are too precious to spend gazing out the windows of a slow-moving train, no matter how relaxing the ride or how spectacular the scenery.

And business travelers are the bread and butter of the travel industry.

Amtrak passenger trains that move through Utah serve mostly people who are not in a hurry: people on vacation, retirees, sometimes tourists seeking adventure. They are loyal customers, but there are not enough of them for the rail service to make money, or even come close to breaking even.

The financial reality - the Chicago-to-Los Angeles route loses about $175 per passenger - makes it difficult, even for those who love trains, to justify continuing the least-profitable long-distance Amtrak routes. Utah`s Sen. Bob Bennett, a champion of Amtrak when it was created 30 years ago, is proposing a major overhaul of the system and elimination of the more costly routes, including the one that runs through Utah.

Although we understand the devotion many people feel toward trains and train travel, we have to agree with Bennett.

Rail travel is a part of life for residents of Europe and many parts of Asia, where the distances are usually not as great as the cross-country routes in this country. On the East and West coasts of the United States, also, relatively short-distance train routes are popular and, in some cases, even profitable.

However, in the vastness of the Midwest and West, flying is the choice of travelers who want to get from here to there as quickly and inexpensively as possible.

The federal government has subsidized Amtrak to the tune of $29 billion since 1971. It`s true that all public transportation is subsidized and few systems are ever profitable. Still, it is time to stanch the flow of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that keep trains running on the long-distance Amtrak routes.

Maintaining this beloved piece of Americana is simply not worth the cost.

© Copyright 2005, The Salt Lake Tribune.