Monday, April 01, 2013

Amtrak haters: Bullies with no public purpose

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Conservative columnist and American Enterprise scholar Michael Barone, with degrees from Harvard and Yale, is a smart fellow. But a recent column about Amtrak suggests his research consisted of wandering into the posh Capitol Grill in Washington, D.C., and sitting at Amtrak baiter-in-chief Rep. John Mica's luncheon table, absorbing Mica's jihad against publicly funded intercity rail passenger service.

Amtrak FLORIDA P-42Mica's endless blistering attacks against Amtrak for failing to earn a profit hang as a sword of Damocles, diverting scarce managerial resources from effectively improving efficiency and customer service to explaining, without respite, why Amtrak should exist at all.

Thirty-one million passenger boardings, up 55% since 1997 — coupled with increasing highway and aviation congestion and a rapidly aging population — should be reason enough, but not for Mica, Barone, and other Amtrak haters.

What Amtrak so desperately requires to meet travelers' demands is obtaining a consistent and reliable source of funding — especially for fleet, motive power, and Northeast Corridor renewal and upgrades. For Mica to play the role of the evil Lucy, while Amtrak, in the role of the hapless Charlie Brown, attempts to kick the football, serves no public purpose. The majority American voters and taxpayers, as evidenced by independent public opinion polls, support the existence and expansion of Amtrak service. 

Indeed, Barone's recent nationally syndicated column complains that Amtrak has failed to fulfill its mission as a "profit-making enterprise," ignoring that no passenger railroad in the world has operated without public support — or probably ever will.

That "for profit" clause in Amtrak's enabling legislation was an unfortunate "lofty ambition," in the words of former senior Senate legislative aide Dan O'Neal (also a former chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission), who sheepishly admits guilt in writing it into the law 41 years ago.

Neither Barone nor Mica suggest that public subsidies for commuter rail, airport construction, air traffic control, or highway subsidies benefitting auto and bus travel be eliminated. Amtrak is a popular target among arch conservatives whose political contributions flow from such attacks.

Imagine, instead, that Barone suggested highway gasoline and diesel fuel taxes be raised to reflect the cost of highway snow removal, police patrols, and U.S. naval and ground forces that ensure an uninterrupted flow of Middle East crude oil to American refineries. Or that public funding for national parks be eliminated. Exactly. Bullies are careful in choosing their targets.

Ignored by Amtrak haters is the progress being made by Amtrak management. Amtrak in 2012 recorded its lowest operating deficit in 38 years, covering 88% of its operating costs from ticket sales and other revenue, and is asking Congress for 16% less in operating subsidies for year 2014. Meanwhile, Amtrak's ridership is up by 31%. Mica and Barone dismiss such facts as irrelevant.

While Amtrak haters question why American taxpayers should help fund, for example, rail service between Chicago and Seattle when alternative airline is available, they disregard that most passengers board and detrain at intermediate points not served by airlines, and that intercity bus service in rural America has declined by 11% and by as much as 39% in some states. For Americans living in rural areas, there is no effective alternative intercity transportation available other than via Amtrak.

Indeed, if Amtrak would eliminate its six biggest money-losing routes that primarily traverse rural America, there would be virtually no public intercity transportation available to Americans in much of the South and the Midwest. Amtrak's long-distance trains, which serve 40% of America's rural population, also bring some one million riders annually to Northeast Corridor trains that do earn an operating (“above the rail”) profit.

And to suggest privatization of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor trains recklessly overlooks that only a national interconnected rail passenger system, including long-distance trains, makes possible broad congressional support for Northeast Corridor capital outlays — still essential even were corridor service privatized.

Amtrak's new board chairman, Anthony Coscia, is spot-on with his comment that Amtrak's highest priority is "about the people, not about the trains."

Convincing more in Congress to ignore the noise from Mica, Barone, and other Amtrak haters is more problematic, but of an equivalent priority.


Frank N. Wilner

Frank N. Wilner is author of six books, including, Amtrak: Past, Present, Future; Understanding the Railway Labor Act; and, Railroad Mergers: History, Analysis, Insight. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics and labor relations from Virginia Tech. He has been assistant vice president, policy, for the Association of American Railroads; a White House appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board; and director of public relations for the United Transportation Union. He is a past president of the Association of Transportation Law Professionals.