Response submitted to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 19, 2006

To the Editor, Cleveland Plain Dealer—

To call 35 years of providing public transportation to hundreds of millions of Americans a “failure” (“Amtrak: 35 and still…failing, May 12, 2006) trivializes Amtrak’s significant accomplishments. These include ridership increases in eight of the last nine years, and ridership records in the three most recent years.

We agree that Amtrak can do things better. This includes outsourcing in certain, specific areas where this is practical. To call for outright privatization, however, is to ignore the reality that most of the tracks Amtrak uses are privately owned and the freight railroads are not about to grant to other operators the favorable terms Amtrak gets under the law.

The current and prospective energy situation is drawing more people to public transportation, including Amtrak. The U.S. must provide reliable, proper funding to all modes of transportation—not just highways and aviation. America does not have that now, and Amtrak will continue to “rattle” along until it is provided.

The longer we treat funding passenger rail as an afterthought, the angrier the traveling public will be when the public—already well ahead of the political process—fully embraces trains because cheap auto travel is understood to be a thing of the past.

Sincerely,

Ross B. Capon
Executive Director
National Association of Railroad Passengers


Amtrak: 35 and still . . . failing
May 12 2006
(c) 2006, Cleveland Plain Dealer


Amtrak, the government`s excuse for a passenger rail system, rattled past the 35th anniversary of its creation May 1, testament to two American truths: The federal government can`t run a railroad, and Americans refuse to let it quit trying.

Amtrak was a creation of the Richard Nixon administration, a patchwork of 184 trains serving 314 stations. Its federal creators, convinced that passenger rail service had no future, thought it would die out in three years. They underestimated the affection of the American public for a ground-based transportation system more comfortable than either the airplane or the bus, and the ability of that public to persuade its congressional representatives to keep those trains creaking on.

So now Amtrak, more than $3 billion in debt, services 500 stations in 46 states, and Congress hasn`t the slightest idea what do with it - except keep it alive, barely, despite President Bush`s determination to do away with its federal funding.

Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense said it well when he told the Associated Press that Congress has never given the rail service a clear consensus opinion on how they want it to change, ``except saying they have to be more fiscally responsible.``

That plays into the fiction Congress has promulgated ever since it birthed Amtrak - that it could, indeed, make a profit without some form of federal subsidy. That`s a feat the passenger airline industry never has been able to accomplish. It`s equally impossible for passenger rail.

Amtrak demonstrated the worth of passenger rail as well as it could, given its depleted resources of coaches and engines, in the days following the attacks of 9/11, when all domestic aviation was grounded and people needed an alternative way to cover great distances.

But the big problem is, in those 35 years, too many people have come to think of the name ``Amtrak`` as encompassing all possible passenger rail. It does not.

Amtrak, as an entity, is a failed business model; passenger rail, as a transportation mode, is successful the world around - but generally moreso under private ownership.

Both Britain and Japan depend heavily on passenger rail service. Both have privatized portions of their operations while subsidizing portions of the infrastructure and found, to their surprise, that the routes can be profitable. Strange that a Congress controlled by Republicans, heirs of a party that once encouraged private enterprise, cannot come to that long-elusive consensus about the future of passenger rail, for which there is a demand, and Amtrak, for which there is not.