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AS WITH SO MANY government programs, Amtrak is supported by liberal Democrats with an idealistic love for federal ownership and conservative Republicans who take home the bacon. Most of Amtrak’s political support comes from East and West Coast liberals, plus the labor unions, which are, at bottom, its main defenders. Meanwhile, the Congressmen from Wolf Point, Montana, and Gallup, New Mexico, are hometown heroes. A 1998 report of the General Accounting Office found that “fewer than 100 passengers, on average, boarded Amtrak intercity trains and connecting buses per day in 13 states,” all of them in the South and Midwest.
After Amtrak collected another billion-dollar subsidy in 1997, Congress tried to rein in spending by establishing the Amtrak Reform Board. Instead of appointing business and financial types, however, President Clinton nominated former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, and Mayor John Robert Smith of Meridian, Mississippi. Smith spent most of his time trying to get the Atlanta-to-Dallas line run through Meridian. Thompson actually established a new route from Chicago to Janesville that ran nearly empty and cost $1,000 per passenger. Dukakis was content to preside over government in action.
When confronted with austerity, Amtrak routinely threatens to shut down suburban commuter lines by closing its stations in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. When Missouri tried to award Amtrak’s St. Louis-Kansas City line to a private competitor, Amtrak refused to allow access to its rail facilities, killing the deal. Few private companies since John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil have so brazenly practiced restraint of trade.
Vranich believes Amtrak should be broken into three entities and sold to private companies or devolved to state and local agencies. In particular, the Boston-New York-Washington corridor should be run by a regional agency with trains operated under competitive bidding. Amtrak’s contracts to provide urban commuter trains in places like Seattle and San Francisco should be re-bid to bring in more economical private operators. Finally, some of Amtrak’s hopelessly unprofitable long-distance intercity passenger routes should be sold to private interests. If they cannot be run profitably, they should close down.
IT’S NOT AS IF RAILROADS aren’t important to the nation’s transportation. While Amtrak has become an antiquarian relic, rail freight in thriving. Since Conrail was sold back to private enterprise in 1987, freight lines are carrying more cargo than Conrail ever. Their main problem is that freight trains must often sit for an hour on sidings waiting for Amtrak trains to pass.
Remarkably, America is now far behind the rest of the world in getting passenger lines back to private hands. Europe and Japan have largely broken up their national rail monopolies. The European Union even prohibits member countries from cross-subsidizing passenger service and profitable freight lines.
In Canada, the Great Canadian Railtour Company bought a money-losing Western passenger line from the government and turned it into the Rocky Mountaineer, a profit-making tourist experience that attracts customers from all over Europe.
Amtrak, says Vranich, has lost all sense of purpose except its own survival. “The company has treated its biggest customers with disdain, while disparaging successful rail privatization and devolvement that are occurring throughout the world,” he concludes. “It is difficult to describe Amtrak management and personnel as ‘passionate’ about anything except their belief that the government owes Amtrak higher subsidies.”
Good enough reason for Congress to follow the advice of the advice of the Bush administration and finally cut Amtrak adrift.
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