The Right Track: Amtrak Can Again Point the Way
I would like to offer some thoughts regarding recent comments about Amtrak in The Pilot.
When I was just out of college, I worked as an economist at the Federal Railroad Administration (part of the Department of Transportation) and served as a member of the team that put Amtrak together. A few days after the start-up of Amtrak, I was a member of Amtrak's initial management, serving as manager of scheduling.
Before the creation of Amtrak, passenger trains were part of the private sector. After the relentless onslaught of government spending on highways and aviation in the 1950s and 1960s, the railroads not only were unable to make a profit carrying passengers, but also were losing money at it.
The deteriorating situation was exacerbated in 1967, when the Post Office decided to switch mail from passenger trains to trucks and planes. With mail and express accounting for 40 percent of total passenger train revenues at the time, the decline of that business was the final straw. The railroads could ill afford to lose money carrying passengers, since the government-built Interstate highways that were draining passengers were also taking away their freight business.
Amtrak was created for two reasons:
-- If the railroads were not relieved of the money-losing passenger business, they would end up bankrupt. The largest bankruptcy of the time, Penn Central, had already occurred in June 1970, and other railroads were heading in the same direction. So one reason for the creation of Amtrak was to save the railroad industry.
-- The second reason was that many in Congress believed that passenger trains served a purpose and were worth preserving. It was hoped that a new, national organization, with government support, could stabilize and coordinate the business and eventually improve and expand it.
The Nixon Administration bought into the first reason, since the collapse of the railroad industry would be disastrous for the nation, but was not all that interested in the second reason. It agreed to the creation of Amtrak if it did not cost too much money (in fact, the railroads were required to pay to join Amtrak if they wanted relief from passenger train losses), and if it was created with a for-profit objective.
No one who knew anything about the economics of the transportation business believed there would ever be profits, especially with a start-up budget that provided only minimal funds for capital and operating costs. But that was the "wink" required to get the legislation signed into law by Nixon.
Thus was created the "for-profit" myth.
Look at Europe
The fact is that without government support, particularly capital funding, there would be little passenger rail service anywhere in the world. The spectacular systems of Europe that offer passengers fast (up to 200 mph), frequent service on networks reaching almost everywhere cost money, and that money comes from the governments.
Switzerland, a country smaller in size than North Carolina and with a population of eight million (also smaller than North Carolina) has committed billions for new equipment, faster track and lengthy new tunnels and spends over $1 billion a year to operate its dense passenger rail network, the world's best-coordinated system.
Swiss trains, buses, boats and trolleys are all linked to provide easy, seamless transportation. You can even rent bicycles at most stations. The Swiss have a good highway network, too, but using a car is just an option -- it is so easy to get around without one. The key is getting value for that public investment.
Starving It to Death
At this point, I have to mention that passenger rail is not unique in its need for government support. We would not have our extensive network of federal, state and local highways without government support. Gas taxes cover only a portion of that massive expenditure. Airlines and bus companies have benefited from numerous government initiatives and still are lucky to turn a profit every now and then.
The main problem with Amtrak, at least until this year, has been starvation. Some administrations have tried to kill it, others have offered only benign neglect.
Congress has always ridden to the rescue, but only with enough money to allow Amtrak to struggle through until the next year's budget battle. There can be no long-term planning under that kind of arrangement.
Expecting great things from Amtrak is like expecting a Triple Crown win from a horse that has not been fed. More has been spent on one or two urban highway interchanges than has been spent in a typical year funding the operation of Amtrak's national network.
Yet despite more than three decades of underfunding and neglect, Amtrak has managed to run a national system. And despite a less-than-perfect operating performance (which has actually improved quite a bit at Southern Pines in the last six months), Amtrak has consistently attracted more riders, setting an all-time record last year.
Southern Pines experienced a 19.8 percent increase in fiscal year 2008 (which ended in October) versus fiscal year 2007, with 5,389 boardings and detrainings. North Carolina, which is served by 12 Amtrak trains (six round trips), also experienced a 19.8 percent increase in the last fiscal year, with 694,290 passengers boarding or detraining in our state.
Amtrak could attract even more riders if it had more equipment and more trains. For example, a recent increase from three trains a day each way to five between Chicago and St. Louis nearly doubled ridership.
California, the capital of the car culture, has in cooperation with Amtrak invested over the last two decades to purchase new equipment, renovate or build stations, increase frequencies and add new routes. Like Chicago-St. Louis, ridership exploded as a result.
New Day Dawning?
Now, for the first time, with the support of the Obama-Biden administration, Amtrak will receive enough funding to repair cars, obtain new equipment and make other overdue improvements. Federal funding is also finally available for progressive "pro-rail" states -- and North Carolina is one of them -- to move forward on higher-speed rail.
There are plans, awaiting federal and state funding, to add some routes in North Carolina and to substantially upgrade the Charlotte-Raleigh-Richmond-Washington corridor (in conjunction with the state of Virginia).
The decision made years ago to preserve a rail passenger network was a wise one. Rail is the "greenest" mode, and a comfortable train ride easily beats the hassle that flying and driving have become. With improvements, rail clearly would become the way to go.
Imagine having the option of not just one train a day but several trains throughout the day at Southern Pines. Imagine boarding and enjoying the comfort of new equipment and the traditional pleasure of dining on board.
Then imagine proceeding up the "Southeast Corridor" from Raleigh to Richmond to Washington at speeds of 110 mph and on to New York and Boston at speeds up to 150 mph. Going south from here, several trains a day would provide higher speed (90-110 mph) service to Columbia, Savannah and Florida.
With adequate and intelligent investment, we may finally get the value for that investment that Amtrak's founders, myself included, envisioned.
Kevin McKinney lives in Pinehurst.
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