Off track

Air disasters spotlight a need for better train service -- but American transportation policy has neglected railroads for decades.

Published November 21, 2001 8:35PM (EST)

At first glance, September's airborne attacks might seem like a clear vindication for Amtrak. With all flights in the country grounded in the days just after Sept. 11, the national railroad honored airline tickets from stranded travelers and drew a stampede of passengers. "Virtually every train" sold out, says an Amtrak spokesman; the company's phone reservation line was almost unreachable for days, and unreserved trains in the heavily traveled northeast corridor experienced standing-room-only conditions.

At the same time -- and in contrast to airline industry woes -- Amtrak ridership has actually grown slightly nationwide. In October, ridership on express Metroliner and high-speed Acela trains in the northeast corridor between Washington and Boston was up 43 percent over a year ago, and a third to one-half of those trains have been selling out and turning passengers away. On long-distance routes, Amtrak also reports that 40 percent of its sleeper cars have been selling out as well.

"We're in an environment today when 20 to 25 percent fewer passengers are flying than they were a year ago, and our ridership is about 1 percent higher than the year before," says spokesman Bill Schulz of Amtrak's nationwide performance in October. "That is pretty phenomenal." Amtrak carries an average of 60,000 passengers a day -- the equivalent of hundreds of flights.

While there is significant new interest in trains, however, the future for the national passenger-rail system remains unclear. Sept. 11 and its aftermath have brought Amtrak more riders, but also an increase in the railway's expenses. Amtrak has been paying for new security measures such as round-the-clock watches on bridges and tunnels, as well as greater operational costs on older cars and other equipment that has been brought out of storage to help meet new demand. Earlier this year, Amtrak also mortgaged part of New York's Penn Station, and the railroad is in a $200 million legal dispute with the builder of its new high-speed Acela trains.

Political developments have been confusing as well. Proposed federal and state investment in high-speed rail service around the country has been under consideration for years, but the legislation still has not moved. Unlike the airlines, Amtrak -- which, if it were an airline, would rank as the seventh or eighth largest in the country -- has so far received no emergency aid or additional funds to deal with increased security costs.

Perhaps most surprising, however, is the Nov. 9 vote by the Amtrak Reform Council -- a bipartisan commission with a congressional mandate to oversee efforts by Amtrak to break even. The ARC issued a finding that Amtrak will not meet a fall 2002 deadline for running in the black. The decision on what to do next passes back to Congress, but Amtrak is now required to draw up plans for its own liquidation, even while carrying more passengers and shouldering new responsibilities in the wake of Sept. 11.

All this turmoil raises a natural question. Stephen B. Goddard, a transportation historian and the author of "Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century," says that September's terrorist attacks have uncovered America's "soft underbelly of vulnerability in the lack of an integrated transportation system." But at a time when air tragedies have highlighted the role that passenger rail can play, why is the U.S. rail network still so hamstrung? How could it possibly be under renewed political attack? The problem is especially striking compared to the situation in many other countries, where trains regularly run faster -- well over 100 mph in some cases -- and far more conveniently.

The answer is a complicated mix of factors, not least of which is a long-running deliberate government effort to promote modes of transportation like highway and air travel at the expense of rail. But there has also been a basic failure on the part of some politicians to understand a basic point about rail travel: It doesn't have to make money, or even break even, to be an important cog in a healthy economy.

Amtrak critics say the national agency is, quite simply, a business failure. The surprise is that Amtrak agrees. "For 30 years, Amtrak has labored under the weight of a business model that does not work," said Amtrak president George Warrington on Nov. 1, in testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee.

The reason Amtrak has never broken even, representatives and supporters say, is a contradictory mission from Congress: Amtrak is not only supposed to operate as a public service that stretches over transcontinental distances. It's also supposed to make money, or at least break even -- a goal that became a legal requirement with a 2002 deadline, thanks to legislation passed four years ago.

Since then, Amtrak has trimmed costs and introduced new services that have generally been well received, but the agency maintains it's difficult at best to provide national service and become profitable without capital investment for upgrading trains and the infrastructure they require. The result has been short-term compromises at the expense of long-term solutions. At the expense of reinvestment in better technology and infrastructure, Amtrak cross-subsidizes unprofitable routes with revenue from more popular ones. Congress, meanwhile, has paid out hundreds of millions a year just to keep the trains rolling, instead of providing funds for improvements that might eliminate or at least reduce the need for subsidies.

Some Amtrak critics say the way to resolve the contradiction is to simply eliminate the railroad, or at least to drop unprofitable routes. In 1985, President Reagan argued that it would cost less to hand out free airline tickets than for the government to continue subsidizing some rail routes. As a result of this and other criticism, Amtrak has gradually reduced service, with cuts in recent years such as the elimination of a route between Denver and Seattle.

Budget shortfalls and criticism continue, however, and today, one of Amtrak's leading critics is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Earlier this year, McCain said Amtrak should not be a "money pit" and called the proposed High Speed Rail Investment Act "another desperate attempt by Amtrak to receive federal money without any accountability." The bill would let Amtrak sell $12 billion in bonds to help finance high-speed rail projects around the country.

Amtrak supporters argue that criticism of transportation subsidies is fine -- it just needs to be spread around.

"There's nothing wrong with this argument if you apply it evenly, but if we apply that principle only to rail and not to aviation and highways, you have a tremendous skewing of investment," says Scott Leonard, assistant director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP). Leonard and others point to a longstanding "investment gap": in fiscal year 2001 federal highway investment totaled $33.5 billion, while aviation spending was $12.6 billion. Intercity rail got only half a billion. Amtrak also lacks a predictable mechanism for capital investment, such as the taxes on gasoline and airline tickets that provide a ready source of funds for road and airport infrastructure. The railroad goes begging every year.

Amtrak's history over the last three decades, however, is just the latest chapter in a story that stretches back more than a century. Deliberate decisions have sacrificed U.S. passenger rail for the sake of promoting highway and air travel. "We are being affected by policy decisions that were made as long as a hundred years ago," says Leonard. Goddard says that the best one-word way to explain the current U.S. rail situation is "underinvestment." Instead, most of the investment has gone to highways and air travel. "As for road, rail and air, rail is the only one of the three to have paid for its own infrastructure, which immediately puts it behind the eight ball," Goddard says. Much existing rail infrastructure was built with private funds, while federal and state governments have arranged much of the funding for projects like highways and airports. Making matters worse, Amtrak runs most of its routes over tracks that are owned by private freight railways, making it subject to freight delays that it has little or no control over.

"In public policy terms, Americans think of road spending as essential infrastructure, rail spending as an expense. This results from 75 years of conditioning," says Goddard. In his book "Getting There," Goddard notes the widespread and genuine resentment of monopolistic railroads in the 19th and early 20th century, but he describes other excesses as well, such as U.S officials who brazenly promoted highway development. Goddard writes that Tom MacDonald, the director of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads for 30 years until 1953, "could not have been a more effective spokesman for the [motor] industry had he been on a full-time retainer to it." He largely credits MacDonald for reshaping the U.S. transportation landscape in favor of highways at the expense of rail. Then in the '50s, Goddard says, the U.S. interstate system was built with Congress paying 90 percent of highway costs.

Similarly, the airline industry has received significant federal aid as well. Most recently, this took the form of a $15 billion bailout package for the airlines in the wake of Sept. 11. And looking further back over time, James Coston -- a member of the Amtrak Reform Council who voted against the decision that requires liquidation plans -- says direct and indirect airline support, such as airport construction and pilot training in the military, has made the airlines "the beneficiaries of one of the largest taxpayer subsidies in the history of American socialism."

Efforts like these "created the paradigm" that American transportation is still in today, says Goddard. Instead, he says, we need to think "intermodally." "Let's become Europeans," says Goddard. "They began thinking intermodally more than a century ago. A truly intermodal system is one that operates as a team and in which the capacity of each mode can absorb the traffic of the others when one of them is at risk."

Some of Amtrak's biggest critics are Republicans such as John McCain and Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, but the railroad also has bipartisan support. In addition to a wide variety of Democrats, Amtrak supporters include Gramm's Republican Texas colleague Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a sponsor of the High Speed Rail Investment Act (HSRIA), and New York Republican Rep. Jack Quinn, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads.

Quinn says the Amtrak Reform Council's liquidation decision "could not have come at a worse time."

The debate is not so much over whether passenger rail has a role. Instead it's a disagreement between those who believe Amtrak cannot do what needs to be done, and those who think it can -- if longstanding problems are addressed.

On the anti-Amtrak side are critics like Paul Weyrich, vice chairman of the Amtrak Reform Council's board of directors. Weyrich, a conservative activist and president of the Free Congress Foundation who also served on the Amtrak board for six years and played a role in getting President Nixon to sign the bill that created Amtrak in the first place, says he has been an Amtrak booster for most of the railroad's existence. But he doesn't support the railroad anymore.

"I am for a national passenger-rail system, and I am for the government investing a lot of capital in it, but we ought to be able to put a system together that at least breaks even," Weyrich says. "Amtrak is broken. It cannot be fixed. Congress can continue to pour endless sums of money into it, but it's never going to prove itself because the culture is such that it can't.

"Amtrak was a system that was inherited from the freight railroads. A lot of the attitudes and practices that were part of the old way of operating railroads came with Amtrak and it has been almost impossible to get rid of it. There are routes where you have pretty good service, but there are routes where the attitude is surly, the food is lousy, the trains run hours and hours late."

In its defense, Amtrak says it has changed significantly in the last several years by trimming costs, rolling out service improvements like Acela high-speed rail, partnering with other businesses like airlines and car-rental companies, starting a guest-rewards program similar to frequent-flyer programs, and offering a satisfaction guarantee: The agency offers passengers an equivalent credit toward another trip if they aren't happy with Amtrak service.

Amtrak also has consistent proponents, such as Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and others who have come to its defense in the wake of the Amtrak Reform Council's finding. "Now is not the right time to do this," says Quinn. "I understand that Amtrak might have difficulty making the self-sufficiency deadline, but now is not the right time to begin the liquidation process."

Amtrak also has significant support at the state and city level, in the form of endorsements for the High Speed Rail Investment Act from the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Governors' Association. State transportation officials in particular are also eager for federal help in building high-speed rail corridors, some of which are already in development. Construction is already underway, for example, on a high-speed rail link between Chicago and St. Louis, and Mike Monseur, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation, says the state is "absolutely" hoping to get additional federal money for other rail projects.

Under the proposed Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, Chicago would be the hub of a nine-state network of trains that could run more than 100 mph.

In California, state Department of Transportation director Jeff Morales says, "From a lot of perspectives -- air quality, quality of life, the management of dollars -- rail makes a lot of sense as an element of a balanced transportation system." Morales says new rail services that have already been introduced in California in partnership with Amtrak are "struggling to keep up with demand. We've essentially created a new market, and now it's growing faster than anticipated."

Morales says that California has also had a "very good experience" working with Amtrak, and adds, "We absolutely would like to see some sort of major rail package passed. California stands to benefit significantly from any national rail program."

In addition to the High Speed Rail Investment Act, which currently has 57 cosponsors in the Senate (enough to pass, but not enough to break a filibuster) and about 180 in the House, other measures have recently been proposed and introduced in Congress to help the country's rail service begin to catch up.

For its part, Amtrak asked earlier this year for capital funding of $1.5 billion a year for 20 years. The agency says the money could be used for a wide range of service improvements, like reducing travel time between Seattle and Portland by an hour, from 3.5 hours to 2.5 hours, or two hours between Chicago and Detroit, from five hours and 46 minutes to three hours and 40 minutes.

On Oct. 11, Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., introduced the Railroad Advancement and Infrastructure Law of the 21st Century. Also known as Rail-21, the bill would remove Amtrak's self-sufficiency deadline next year, authorize $3.2 billion for new security and capacity needs, and provide funds for capital investment, including $35 billion in direct loans for passenger rail, freight rail and security enhancements. Hollings says Sept. 11 "not only proved that Amtrak works, but that Amtrak is a critical part of our transportation infrastructure during a national emergency."

Going even further, in a way, is a bill introduced on Sept. 25 by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the Rail Infrastructure Development and Expansion Act. The bill would provide a total of $71 billion in bonds and loans for freight and passenger rail projects.

"The tragedies of Sept. 11, and the resulting short-term cessation of air travel, demonstrated the need for transportation alternatives for passengers. It is time for the United States to make high-speed passenger rail a transportation priority," said Young in a statement.

Rail observers like Scott Leonard at the National Association of Railroad Passengers express concern about loan programs. "It's never been a realistic expectation that high-speed-rail programs would be so successful they'd be able to cover the cost of their operations and capital," Leonard says, and Goddard criticizes the expectation of turning a profit.

"No national railway of a developed country has ever run a profit. They're not supposed to. The correlative economic and social benefits they throw off -- bringing commuters to taxpaying corporations daily, for one thing -- more than offset any net loss they suffer." Operating expenses can be reduced, but rail proponents argue that capital investment needs to be provided for rail, just as it is for other forms of transportation, and just as it is for other public services.

"Unlike every other passenger rail system in the world," said Biden when introducing the 2001 version of HSRIA earlier this year, "Amtrak has lacked a secure source of public support for its capital needs ... The bill that Senator Hutchison and I introduce today is designed to provide Amtrak with the capital funds to establish a truly national high-speed passenger rail system. The idea is simple, and it is modeled on a program we already have in place to support another important public priority, public school construction."

Anti-Amtrak conservatives do not like the idea of letting the rail agency off the self-sufficiency hook, but there may be a growing recognition in the wake of Sept. 11 that the United States has to invest more money if it wants better rail service. Amtrak cites figures showing U.S. per capita rail spending at Third World levels; figures from the European Conference of Ministers of Transport and U.S. Congressional Budget Office highlight the stark contrast in priorities: Of Germany's total transportation capital spending, 21.7 percent goes to rail; France spends 20.7 percent; the United States spends 0.4 percent.

"You get what you pay for," says Leonard at NARP. "Those countries have paid for an excellent rail system, and we haven't."

By Christopher Ott

Christopher Ott is a writer in Madison, Wis.

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