Amtrak Funding Scandal
Trains - such a
wonderful way of traveling! This article extends the
concepts introduced in this earlier
Truly, the US
government's neglect of Amtrak is a scandal!
Why does the government
willingly give billions of dollars to the airlines, but begrudge
every penny that Amtrak needs? How can a country five times
smaller than us spend $15 billion to improve its already great
railroad network when we are unwilling to spend one tenth of
that on Amtrak?
Truly, the US government's
neglect of Amtrak is a scandal!
Rail travel should be
Rail travel is inherently
safer than air travel. Rail travel is more energy efficient than
air travel. Rail travel is, in many cases (short routes under
~300 miles) quicker than air travel. Rail travel is less
vulnerable to terrorist mass-destruction attack.
Most important of all (!)
rail travel is vastly more comfortable and enjoyable than air or
bus travel. Passengers can enjoy much more personal space, open
areas to move around in, buffet/dining facilities, and not worry
about getting stuck in a middle seat!
Rail travel is good, no
matter what measuring stick you apply. Rail travel deserves to
be encouraged. Rail travel deserves government support in at
least equal measure to that given to air and road
Amtrak is - and can be-
In the Northeastern
Boston-New York-Washington corridor, Amtrak carries more
passengers between New York and Washington than both airline
Amtrak needs to build on
this success; it needs to invest in additional short distance
major city-pair services where it can duplicate its success. San
Diego-Los Angeles-San Francisco-Sacramento, for example.
Amtrak is currently vastly
under-developed. Each day, only 64,000 passengers take Amtrak
services. On the same day, 15 times more people (984,000) use
intercity buses, and a massive 1.8 million are forced to endure
airplane flights. Amtrak needs to grow and grow and grow so as
to reach critical mass and to be able to survive and trade more
Much of Amtrak is
inefficient and inappropriate. New investment in Amtrak needs to
be carefully and directly allocated only to the 'sweet spot' of
short haul train service. Long-haul (ie 12+ hour journeys)
trains have no part of an effective, efficient, mass-transit
service in the US today.
Why do airlines get cash but
Immediately after 9/11, the
airlines rushed to ask for up to $15 billion in cash gifts and
loan guarantees from the Federal Government. The airlines -
perhaps the most successful lobbying group in all history -
encountered a generally positive response, and within eleven
days, had secured commitments for a first tranche of $5 billion
in grants, with no strings attached. Even airlines that made a
profit got cash, and in the case of Southwest Airlines, they
showed an accounting charge of $58 million arising from the
terrorist attacks, but received a $169 million gift from the
A cynical observer of the
political process might also note that a strengthened Amtrak
would be a potential major competitor to the airlines - Amtrak's
success might mean less profit for the airlines. Is it any
wonder that our politicians, so amenable to anything that can
help the airlines, are proving strangely resistant to helping
Whatever the reason might
be, the generous funding to the airlines at a time when Amtrak
is being denied any money at all is truly a scandal.
A Lesson from Britain
Anyone that has ever enjoyed
an intercity train on the British rail network knows that
British trains are close to excellent. Fast comfortable trains,
traveling at up to 140 mph take you wherever you want to go in a
very short time, and with many trains per day, you have a
convenient choice of times and trains such that you don't even
need to reserve seats.
The British rail system must
seem like an impossible dream to Amtrak's management. But, as
good as it is, the British government is committed to making it
better. Describing a rail system that is vastly superior to the
US system as 'dilapidated', British Transport Secretary Alistair
Darling this week confirmed the government's investment of $14.5
billion in improvements, and added another $30 billion as a
contingency facility as a provision for 'any horrible
eventuality'! A small country with a population of 60 million
people can afford to invest $14.5 billion extra into its already
good rail system. But the US - with an affluent population
nearly five times larger - is currently unwilling to even loan
The unwillingness of the US
government to fund Amtrak even to a level that is four hundred
times lower than in Britain (per capita) is truly a scandal.
A Government Loan will just
make things Worse
Let's face facts. Amtrak,
like every other public transportation and railroad system in
the world, is and always will be chronically unprofitable.
It now appears that an
emergency financial package - a $100 million loan now, and
another $100 million later, perhaps as a loan, perhaps as a
grant, was agreed on Wednesday. But what does this mean? A $200
million loan makes things worse, not better!
It allows Amtrak to continue
to lose more money for a few more months and increases its
It increases Amtrak's costs -
Amtrak has to pay interest on the loan - by perhaps another
$10 million a year!
Lending Amtrak money does
not help Amtrak; it harms it. Amtrak needs a loan like an
alcoholic needs a bottle of booze - the more money it borrows,
the harder it is to ever become profitable.
What Amtrak Needs and Must
Amtrak needs cash. Not loans
that increase its operating costs each year, but cash (equity or
otherwise). The government is able to give billions to the
airlines. Why can it not be similarly generous to Amtrak?
Most of Amtrak's current
problems relate to lack of capital. Amtrak has been forced to
run itself into the ground over the last several decades. It has
over fifty carriages that have been damaged which it can not
even afford to repair. It has a laughably small number of
carriages and locomotives, and can not operate enough trains to
become convenient enough as to provide a viable service to
Amtrak needs a massive
investment of capital to enable it to get closer to a 'critical
mass' that can become, if not profitable, at least less of a
current chronic loss maker. Amtrak needs this capital so that it
truly can provide beneficial services to a much larger
percentage of the population than currently benefits from
What is Congress Doing?
Congress is going on
holiday, that is what Congress is doing! In other words,
Congress is doing nothing.
However, the Senate
Transportation Committee did pass a bill on to the Senate Floor
that would greatly increase Amtrak's annual funding. It isn't
enough, but it is a lot better than nothing. This should be
What Should You Be Doing
Write some letters or make
some phone calls. In terms of persuasive power, letters and
phone calls are much more persuasive than emails.
Make your letter or phone
call simple and short, and phrase your ideas positively; trying
not to be critical of anyone or anything in the past. Talk about
the positive aspects of rail (as discussed at the top of this
article) and if there is a regional issue as to how improved
short-distance rail would be helpful to your area, be sure to
mention that to your own representatives, too.
Write or phone to your
two senators, to
President, and also to these people :
Sen Hollings (D-SC),
Chairman, and Sen McCain (R-AZ), Ranking Member, of the
Science and Transportation Committee
Sen Murray (D-WA), Chairman,
and Sen Shelby (R-AL), Ranking Member, of the
Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation
(D-SD), Senate Majority Leader, to get him to schedule hearings
on the Bill passed out of the Commerce, Science and
Rep Young (R-AK), Chairman
and Rep Oberstar (D-MN), Ranking Member, of the
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
(R-NY), Chairman and
Clement (D-TN), Ranking Member, of the Subcommittee on
For all their undoubted
faults, our politicians are still sensitive to the opinions of
the people that elect them! Help them to understand the issues
that are important to you, and make these same issues important
to them, too.
And hopefully, we will all
get to enjoy the type of train service we need and deserve.
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28 June 2002, last update
19 Dec 2013
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.