Once again, Amtrak is before Congress asking for another handout. Having lost $600 million last year — about average for the 34 years of its existence — the company is once again begging Congress for money.
This time, however, the Bush administration plans to end the charade that Amtrak will one day become profitable. It wants to end the handouts, making Amtrak compete like any private company. Democrats, of course are opposed. They love any government program — even those created by the Nixon administration. Before they begin their annual last-ditch stand, however, they would do well to read Joseph Vranich’s new book.
A former public affairs spokesman at Amtrak, Vranich has one thing to say about Amtrak — it’s a rolling disaster. The government-owned corporation now regularly requires nearly $1 billion a year in subsidies. It is drowning in debt. Two years ago it mortgaged New York’s Penn Station for $300 million to pay three months’ operating losses.
Nearly empty trains roll through Iowa and Montana, subsidizing passengers at a rate of $300 per ride. Meanwhile New York’s cross-Hudson tunnels are a disaster waiting to happen because Amtrak won’t spend the money to improve fire protection and escape routes.
Challenged by private competition, Amtrak acts like the worst 19th-century monopolist. When fed-up cities have tried to take away Amtrak’s franchise for their commuter lines, Amtrak has refused to allow rivals to use its stations and track facilities. By all rights, the corporation should be facing anti-trust charges from the Justice Department. Instead, it comes back to ask Congress for more money each year.
LIKE MOST PEOPLE WHO once put their faith in Amtrak, Joseph Vranich has had enough. A former president of the High Speed Rail Association, Vranich also served on the Amtrak Reform Council, one of the many efforts to bring the corporation under control. “Attempts to reform Amtrak have avoided hard choices, had little impact on efficiency, and ultimately failed,” he writes. “Reform is a dead end.”
Another notably disillusioned former enthusiast is Anthony Haswell, an old-fashioned railroad buff who led the effort to save the nation’s passenger railroads in the 1970s and is known as the “godfather of Amtrak.” In 2001, Haswell ended up suing Amtrak under the Freedom of Information Act to get the corporation to disclose its wastrel ways. “Amtrak’s overriding concern is to assure its institutional survival,” Haswell told Vranich in 2001. “It is a sick and failed organization that should be put out of its misery.”
Amtrak’s basic problem is that it is stuck in the past. Sitting for days and nights in a railroad car no longer has any appeal. Amtrak only handles .3 percent of the nation’s intercity travel. Airlines handle 92 percent while buses carry another 7 percent. Each of the nation’s 16 largest airports services more travelers than all of Amtrak. Private airplanes carry more passengers. And of course automobile traffic drowns all this, with five times as many passenger-miles as the airlines. Yet still Congress coughs up $1 billion a year to keep the trains running.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
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H/T to National Review Online