Amtrak rolls on 40 years later, destination still uncertainIn 1958, an Interstate Commerce Commission report predicted that the passenger train would vanish by 1970, the victim of a traveling public whose affection had shifted to cars and airplanes. But the passenger train refused to die.
By: Curtis Tate, McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — In 1958, an Interstate Commerce Commission report predicted that the passenger train would vanish by 1970, the victim of a traveling public whose affection had shifted to cars and airplanes.
But the passenger train refused to die.
Decades later, Amtrak is still rolling along, even outlasting the federal agency that predicted the passenger train’s demise. Its ridership is growing — up 37 percent from 2000 — and it has many friends in Congress and staunch allies in the White House.
“We’re rediscovering the railroad mode,” said Gil Carmichael, a former head of the Federal Railroad Administration and a prominent Republican supporter of Amtrak.
However, Amtrak has struggled for survival nearly every year since its first trains left the station on May 1, 1971. Now it’s caught in the middle of the fight in Washington to cut federal budget deficits and spending. Some lawmakers want to eliminate it altogether. Others want to turn over pieces of its 22,000-mile network to private operators, an effort that some Amtrak supporters say could spell the end of the national passenger rail network.
Republican Rep. John Mica of Florida, the chairman of the House of Representatives Transportation Committee, introduced legislation in June to end what he calls Amtrak’s “Soviet-style” monopoly on passenger trains and let private companies bid to operate its busiest route, the Northeast Corridor, between Boston and Washington. Mica also thinks the private sector is better suited than Amtrak is to build a new high-speed rail line in the Northeast and operate its network of short- and long-distance corridors throughout the country.
“By giving the private sector the opportunity to bring its resources and expertise to the table, we can lower costs, increase efficiency and improve high-speed and intercity passenger rail service across the country,” Mica said.
Several companies have expressed interest in bidding, including Britain’s Virgin Trains and Veolia Transportation, which operates commuter rail systems in Boston and Miami.
“We’d be interested in any feasible project,” Virgin Trains spokesman Arthur Leathley said.
However, these companies would have to negotiate with freight railroads for track access, and it’s likely that they’d still require operating subsidies.
“It’s going to be some time before we can eliminate these subsidies, but I think we can drive the subsidies down by having an efficient operator,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Transportation Committee’s railroads panel and a co-sponsor of Mica’s bill.
Mica’s proposal faces a tepid reception from Amtrak’s supporters in the Democratic majority Senate.
“If there’s a public-private partnership to help finance it, that’s all right,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. “But the control has to rest, in my view, in the hands of those who represent the public. I’ll fight as hard as I can to keep it that way.”
Lautenberg is one of 19 senators who signed a letter to the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee requesting $2.2 billion for Amtrak in fiscal 2012.
In late August, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood committed nearly $750 million in federal grants to the Northeast Corridor, including money to rebuild tracks for future 186 mph trains and update the line’s Depression-era electrical supply and signal systems.
To Amtrak’s supporters, the money isn’t misplaced: Amtrak is on pace to carry a record 30 million passengers this year, up from 20 million in 2000. With $4-a-gallon gasoline, on top of increased airport delays and security hassles, ridership is up in most corridors.
“All of a sudden, the era of cheap energy is over,” said Elliott Sclar, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University. “If we stay auto dependent, we won’t be competitive.”
But while countries from China to Brazil to oil-rich Saudi Arabia invest big time in passenger trains, Amtrak’s place in U.S. transportation policy is far from assured.
The Carter administration eliminated thousands of miles from Amtrak’s network. The Reagan administration wanted to sell it. George W. Bush proposed shifting more of the cost to states. The current Republican-led House wants to cut its funding dramatically.
A House Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee proposal would shift $1.5 billion from Amtrak and high-speed rail to Midwest flood relief.
The House Transportation Committee’s draft of a six-year transportation funding bill proposes cutting Amtrak’s federal subsidy by 25 percent during the next two fiscal years.
But if more than $36 billion in Amtrak subsidies over the past 40 years seems like a hefty price tag, know that the federal government spent more than $40 billion on highways last year alone.
“Everything that’s been built in the history of the country has been built with government involvement,” Sclar said. “Amtrak was always sort of a stepchild that no one wanted.”