Don't Blame the Government: Rail Passenger Service: a Long Story
Because there are such a paucity of subjects upon which I can enhance the book of knowledge, I greeted with delight Geoff Cutler's column of May 31.
As with most other people who now seldom if ever book a train ride, Cutler's nostalgia got the best of him as he wrote fondly about a long-ago rail trip out west, and sadly about an early-'90s trip from New York to Boston.
The latter experience led him into a commentary suggesting rail service might not have gone to pot had the federal government kept their hands off -- because "Congress had the same romantic illusions about train travel that many of us did they decided to buy the country's passenger rail service." He now concludes that if the resulting entity, Amtrak, were returned to the private sector, we would once again see the excellence that used to be the mark of rail passenger service.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
One has to go back to World War II to find a year in which the railroads made money on passenger service. Both before and after that conflict, the railroads' freight service subsidized their passenger service. After 1945, the great leap forward in the quality of airline service, and the efficiency of private auto transportation enabled by the Interstate highway system, together turned a moribund rail passenger service into a corpse.
For years far past the point it made any economic sense, the railroads had been forced by the benighted regulatory hand of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to maintain a vast intercity rail passenger service that never had been and never could be profitable. The bankruptcy of the PennCentral in 1970 made it unavoidably obvious that the system in place -- freight traffic subsidizing passenger traffic -- would shortly drive the entire railroad system into bankruptcy.
As with passenger service, the heavy hand of the ICC had for years placed regulatory handcuffs on a rail freight service confronted by devastating competition from Interstate-highway-system-enhanced truck service, and Corps of Engineers-enhanced waterway improvements for barge service.
Rail passenger service wasn't seized by the federal government, it was dumped on the government by the railroads. After much bargaining, it was agreed that the railroads could get out by paying what was considered a startup cost of $200 million for the new entity, Amtrak, plus handing over what was now largely a dirty and dilapidated passenger equipment inventory.
It would be the mission of this new quasi-private rail passenger entity to maintain what was declared to be a national imperative -- the operation of a nationwide rail passenger system on an economically viable basis. As one might suspect, that imperative was far more sound in its politics than in its economics.
Despite the usual for-the-public spin, no one with any sense believed that this new model of passenger service would be a profitable venture. In lieu of an airline flight, the traveling public might opt for a two-hour ride on the rails from Washington to New York, or from New York to Boston. But rarely would they trade a two-hour plane ride for an overnight rail ride from Washington to Chicago. Even more certainly, a family of five would rarely forsake the cost and convenience of an automobile for trips offered by rail.
Politics continues to drive the shape and quantity of Amtrak's service. It retains a national presence because of an intractable belief that such a service should be available when needed. Unfortunately, it is most often unneeded. Nonetheless, like many other government procurement programs, it endures by assuring that enough cities and states are included in the network to garner support by the affected congressmen. Presidential efforts to curb or kill the service always lose to that political reality.
The railroads are now doing what they do best -- hauling bulk and other high-density commodities long distances. Their CEOs could not be waterboarded into resuming a passenger service.
J. Thomas Tidd, a retired attorney living in Pinehurst, was vice president and general counsel of the Association of American Railroads.
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