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Not So Fast

Re: The Prowler’s A Team Divided:

I am writing in response to the piece on the Bob Casey for U.S. Senate campaign that ran in the March 14, 2005, Washington Prowler under the title, “A Team Divided.”

Your reporting in this article is fundamentally inaccurate, and we wish to set the record straight.

The conversations that you describe regarding abortion, stem cell research and filibusters simply never took place. And at no time did Senators Reid or Schumer put forward any conditions for supporting Bob Casey’s run for the Senate.
Marc Farinella, Interim Campaign Director
Bob Casey for U.S. Senate
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Re: William Tucker’s Rolling Disaster:

Joe Vranich is on a crusade to promote TGV-style high-speed trains in America, no matter the cost, and to get there he is willing to distort the actual economic performance of Amtrak’s current trains beyond the breaking point. Mr. Vranich especially disparages the interregional long distance trains as empty anachronisms, awash in red ink, kept in operation only to appease venal senators in flyover states. This assessment is dead wrong.

Here is some data that Mr. Vranich either doesn’t know, or perhaps doesn’t want you to know. The long distance trains produce by far the greatest share of Amtrak’s entire system output of transportation. Output is measured by revenue passenger miles, not “ridership,” which is only a measure of transaction volume. The long distance trains produce nearly half of system output, the vaunted Northeast Corridor a little over a third of total output, and the other regional corridors the balance.

The NEC (like our other short regional corridors) boasts load factors of under 40%, showing that we are already overinvested in these short distance services. Long distance trains enjoy load factors generally of 55 to 65%, in markets where a load factor of 67% is functionally “sold out” due to the many boardings and alightings that occur all along a transcontinental route. The seat that is empty now has already been sold to someone boarding down the line. So, the few long hauls we have are in fact heavily used, and highly productive.

But at what cost, Vranich asks? Don’t these trains suck up all the federal subsidy? Well, actually, no, they don’t. A recent Federal Railroad Administration study showed that all of the long distance trains together consumed less than $100 million a year, out of a $1.2 billion federal subsidy. Amtrak says the cost is closer to $200 million in cash, and maybe $300 million, fully-allocated. But the higher figure is still less than one-quarter of the annual federal subsidy. Where does all the rest of that cash go? Mr. Vranich doesn’t like to talk about it, but more than half the annual subsidy is consumed in his model market, the NEC, home of our best approximation of the TGV high speed service he dreams about.

Today, half the annual subsidy produces just a third of the output, in the high speed, short-haul, market in the NEC, while less than a quarter of the subsidy generates half the total output, in the long distance markets. Thus, each federal dollar invested in the long distance markets produces several times more revenue and transportation output per dollar invested than any dollar sunk into the short corridor markets and especially the high speed corridors.

In the one clear example we have of Mr. Vranich’s high speed, short distance, interurban corridor scheme, the financial return on investment from the three billion federal dollars spent to create the Acela high speed program has been a negative number, because the Acela program, according to the US DOT, has accompanied an increased annual operating loss for Amtrak as compared to pre-Acela. And everyone seems to agree that the NEC still needs billions in additional, new federal subsidies, out over the next decade at a minimum, just to sustain what is already there, not drive growth in output. We have, therefore, already tested the Vranich hypothesis, and it has failed totally, at a federal cost of billions of taxpayer subsidy dollars.
This is not a good model to guide future federal investment in intercity rail programs.

Secretary of Transportation Mineta, like Mr. Vranich, has his priorities exactly backwards — if we seek better financial results from our intercity rail programs, we must redirect a much larger share of available federal investment capital towards the markets that have sold out trains and a much higher capital leverage ratio, the long distance markets. The short corridors perhaps warrant investment from a social benefit perspective, to the extent that they provide consumer choice and possibly some mitigation of urban congestion, but they are voraciously capital intensive, and financially hopeless.
Andrew Selden
Vice President–Law and Policy
United Rail Passenger Alliance
Minneapolis, Minnesota

My family of five has taken two long train trips; from Michigan to Glacier National Park in the summer and to a ski resort in the middle of winter. In both cases, AMTRAK was our only option. We quickly learned that if you ignored the fact that the trains usually run late (our winter return home was 13 hours late due to high snow levels in a California mountain pass), and that most of the unionized employees on the trains are more concerned about getting their fair share (and more) of break time than making your trip enjoyable, you could have a delightful trip! We were able to walk about, sit on the sightseer car, eat meals in the dining car and spend a lot of conversational time with our three children. We watched movies on our computer, played cards and enjoyed the serenity of a long train ride. We met interesting people on both trips, and spent hours talking with them. When was the last time you had a long conversation with a stranger? There is something very nostalgic that attracts us to train travel.

The best thing about train travel was not worrying about time schedules — there was nothing we could do about it anyway. No complaining about crazy and inconsiderate drivers, like the “Left Lane Larrys” that plant themselves in the left lane at below the speed limit, no unscheduled stops for emergency bathroom breaks. My only disappointment (besides the service) was my inability to read for very long, due to the wavy nature of the tracks, which kept our bodies in a constant, subtle motion.

But in today’s hurry up world, few people want to spend a few extra days getting to their vacation destinations, so the demand for long distance train travel is unlikely to rise. It is too bad that politics will prevent AMTRAK from seeing any real competition, which would force it to improve or go out of business and make room for a more efficient private company, and thus attracting more customers.

My wife and I both work hard and the keep very busy in the evenings and weekends with three children in hockey, travel soccer, volleyball, scouts, etc., so when we take vacations, we really like to relax. Probably the only thing that will keep me from sleeping well on our next AMTRAK adventure is the realization that while we are relaxing, millions of Americans are working hard to pay more taxes to subsidize our trip. But wait a minute; I don’t sleep well on trains anyway…
Mike Spencer
Midland, Michigan

If there is a coda to be added to William Tucker’s essay on Amtrak (“Rolling Disaster,” March 15) it is that any future privatization should be absolute and top-to-bottom. The privatization of the UK’s railways on a local franchise basis has been a disaster.

If the Iron Horse has to be shot, its death should at least be humane.

Yours in the spirit of (ahem) alliance,
Martin Kelly
Glasgow, Scotland

I am not sure what rail lines Mr. Tucker is speaking of when he notes that freight trains wait for hours for a passenger train to pass. I have ridden Amtrak on the main line through Pennsylvania numerous times and the freight cars had the right of way: The tracks are owned by Norfolk Southern. The reality on this route is quite the opposite of what was written. The Amtrak trains have to wait repeatedly for freight trains. It makes the trip a rather slow one. If freight trains are waiting for a passenger train then the right of way must be owned by another rail line, e.g. Amtrak. If the freight company finds this intolerable, it should build another rail line. If that is too expensive, then let the market find another more profitable method of transporting those goods.
Chris O’Hara

While Amtrak’s problems are numerous and obvious to most, Mr. Tucker’s boilerplate arguments serve mostly to display his misinformed ignorance of the subject.

Fact: Hauling passengers by rail has NEVER been profitable and never will be. In 1971 when Amtrak was formed all but the most pie-in-the-sky liberals knew from day one that the government-controlled railroad would never earn a penny. I have no idea who told Mr. Tucker that Amtrak would “someday be profitable,” but obviously he should find better sources of information. Amtrak’s creation had the sole purpose of relieving the freight railroads (specifically the ill-fated Penn Central) of the burden of hauling people — nothing else. And while Mr. Tucker, Joseph Vranich and others make very good points about Amtrak’s shortcomings (there are many), saying we can’t afford Amtrak is absurd. Killing off Amtrak will make an inconsequentially tiny difference in the total federal government budget.

Complaining about Amtrak is just another way to divert attention from America’s real transportation problems. Amtrak’s average annual budget is about what we pay to rebuild three freeway interchanges.

According to the information I have at hand, over its entire existence Amtrak has received substantially less than half the government subsidies handed over to private U.S. airlines in just 1996 alone. Yet I never hear a peep of complaint about the trillions handed out to private airlines over the last 34 years, and the airlines are still crying that they’re broke! People like Mr. Tucker are too busy whining about an average of $800 million per year given to Amtrak in its entire lifetime to consider where the transportation subsidies are really being wasted. Get people worked up over hundreds of millions so they’ll never notice the hundreds of billions.

I must take issue with the statement, “Sitting for days and nights in a railroad car no longer has any appeal.” He should speak for himself. Maybe Mr. Tucker should take the time to actually experience a long distance train trip before spouting such arrogant nonsense. But I would suggest to him to buy his sleeper ticket early since I wouldn’t want him to have to sleep in a crowded coach on one of his “nearly empty trains.” In 34 years of riding Amtrak very rarely do I ride one of these “nearly empty trains” in normal service, and regularly ride trains that are booked solid because there aren’t enough of them. Amtrak can’t haul more people without more trains, and more trains cost money, and Amtrak must fight tooth and nail for every penny it gets every year while annually private airlines are silently handed dozens of billions without a word of complaint from anyone.

Everything boils down to this: If a government-owned entity can’t turn a profit without government handouts, why should the American taxpayer be responsible? That would be a very pertinent question if passenger rail had EVER been profitable or Amtrak was a privately owned company.

Just once I would like to see the same standards applied to the horrifically expensive airline subsidies. If privately owned U.S. airlines can’t turn a profit without government handouts, why should the American taxpayer be responsible?

Nah, it’ll never happen.

Not all Amtrak supporters are Democrats.
Todd Stoffer
Richfield, Ohio

There is one problem with your recent story about Joe Vranich’s book, End of the Line: the “hopelessly unprofitable” long distance trains are not hopelessly unprofitable. What is hopelessly unprofitable are the corridor services — especially the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak’s own numbers tell the story: of the $1.2 billion Amtrak has said it must have as a subsidy; about $900 million is earmarked to prop up the Northeast Corridor (Boston to Washington). The entire rest of the country — including those evil long distance trains — only need $300 million to continue operation.
Pete Loomis
Monmouth, Illinois

Re: Jay D. Homnick’s Mayor Livingstone, We Presume:

“His riposte underscores a rampant malady of recent times, the tendency for people to pontificate on matters whereof they know nary a thing.”

Is not this the malady that afflicts most every journalist who puts finger to keyboard these days? The very thought of some twit who holds a journalism degree telling the world how things ought to be is enough to make one put head in hands and grasp tightly.
Ed Callahan
La Habra, California

Re: John Reagan’s letter (under “TAS Sensationalized Le Moyne Case”) in Reader Mail’s Le Moyne Revisited and David Holman’s Neo-Jesuit Education:

In his letter headlined “TAS Sensationalized Le Moyne Case,” John Reagan uses examples of certain “unorthodox” professors to defend his alma mater. I read these examples a little differently. The presence of Father Berrigan on campus and the support of gay marriage can also be seen as evidence of an increasingly politically correct faculty. Berrigan could have been the harbinger of even more extreme views, the first of many. Mr. Reagan offers no concrete evidence for his view that there was a good reason for the expulsion in question. He simply questions why the school would take the chance of adverse publicity. I have another take on this. Perhaps they thought that they could get away with it since he was only one in a group of about 30 and would therefore be well-hidden. It seems to me, on the whole, that his esteemed tradition of “open inquiry and robust exchange of ideas” has largely been eroding for the last few decades, at least here in the United States.

As an aside, I cherish my pre-1960s Jesuit high school education.
Patrick R. Glass LTC, USA (Retired)

If I read it correctly, Mr. Reagan is a ’60s graduate of Le Moyne College and does not believe Mr. Holman’s assertions in his piece, “Neo-Jesuit Education.” I too am a ’60s graduate of a small Catholic college. The difference between the college I attended and Mr. Reagan’s is that mine would NEVER have tolerated an avowed COMMUNIST PRIEST to teach Roman Catholic theology. This is not a spirit of open inquiry, but rather, it is a clear and direct attack on the Catholic religion. Father Berrigan teaching theology? Right! Catholicism is an ORGANIZED religion with a hierarchy that is orderly and direct. Supporting “gay marriage,” abortion on demand, and several other aspects of “liberation theology” is not just wrong, it is essentially anti-catholic. If you want a secular-humanistic education, you should go to a secular-humanistic institution. A Catholic college should deliver a Catholic education. Whether the young man’s expulsion was right or wrong is no longer the issue. It wasn’t the issue in the 1960s. Trashing a 2,000-year tradition because some of it isn’t fashionable is not “a tradition of open inquiry” and open inquiry is not what the Berrigan brothers were after. Mr. Reagan may defend his alma mater all he wants. I commend him for it, but the college he defends had and has little to do with Catholicism.
Joseph Baum
Newton Falls, Ohio

Reader John Reagan takes issue with the story of Le Moyne’s alleged PC ejection of a student for his stated views. Mr. Reagan cites the diversity of the school when he attended, with both radical left wingers and right wingers on the faculty, and each happily advocating and propagandizing away in class to their heart’s content.

Mr. Reagan informs us that the school has been that way about expressing opposing views openly since his days as a student there in the 1960s. In regard to the active tolerance of diverse views, openly stated, at the school, Mr. Reagan uses the phrase “in so far as I am aware” to advance his view of the school’s continued adherence to diversity practices.

Now I am not an alumnus of Le Moyne and cannot swear an oath as to their fealty to academic tolerance and diversity, or lack thereof. I wish to propose, however, that it is possible that Mr. Reagan cannot swear to either side of the argument either. It has been in the neighborhood of 40 years since Mr. Reagan was a student there. Further, he informs that the school officials tell him that the dedication to diverse opinion still resides on campus, not that he knows it, but that he is told it.

I would offer Mr. Reagan the thought that the very left wing radicals that were aided, abetted, and taught by Father Berrigan are now the faculty and administrators of academic institutions, ask Larry Summers at Harvard. The right wing radicals who supported the John Birch society have been successfully purged from the faculties and staffs in academia. The radical left has a zero tolerance policy of views from the right, see the work of David Horowitz and FIRE for corroboration of this. Now I suppose that Le Moyne MAY be the only uninfected inhabitant of the fever swamp called academia, but I think the odds of such are astronomical.

Mr. John Reagan, methinks thou doth protest overmuch, sir. You, sir, do seem to be a wee tad defensive.
Ken Shreve
New Hampshire

Based on his experience at as a student at Le Moyne in the 1960s, Mr. Reagan questions the accuracy of Mr. McConnell’s account of a specific situation at Le Moyne in the 2000s. Mr. Reagan’s suggests that the situation recounted by Mr. McConnell would never have happened at the Le Moyne Mr. Reagan remembers from the 1960s. My first response is that Mr. Reagan is probably right. My second response is that much can happen in 40 years. The Le Moyne of Mr. Reagan’s days is most likely not the Le Moyne of Mr. McConnell’s days. In this respect, unfortunately, Le Moyne is similar to all too many of the colleges and universities in the United States.
Brad Lemler
Santa Clarita, California

Mr. Reagan did not supply any evidence for his defense of Le Moyne.
R.L.A. Schaefer
Dubuque, Iowa

Re: Sheila M. Blanchet’s letter (under “Soap and Water”) in Reader Mail’s Le Moyne Revisited and George Neumayr’s It Takes a Snow Job:

Regarding the tawdry antics of the Clintons, mere-et-pere, Sheila M. Blanchet, of Guilford, Connecticut, offered, “I did not exactly want my boys to have to listen to Bill Bennett going on at length about the shape, size, or whatever about the [p]residential penis.”

Is it possible that (Mrs., I presume) Blanchet meant to refer to Bill Bennett’s brother, Bob Bennett — who was counsel to the Pervert-in-Chief during the sordid Paula/Monica fibrillations?

In any event, every time I hear about Miz Hillary’s supposed “moderate” pedigree and how that gives her paws (intentional) about the filth to which young people are exposed, I am reminded of reports, during the Eight Dark Years, of the Christmas tree-trimming festivals over which she presided — festivals in which young staffers were encouraged to festoon der Tannenbaum with such delightful appurtenances as condoms and various sex-toys.
David Gonzalez
Wheeling, Illinois

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