Amtrak: Status Quo is Not Acceptable
Posted on May 14, 2015
Mike Simpson was right, of course.
The Idaho Republican told the Appropriations Committee Democrats that their efforts to politicize the Amtrak train crash were inappropriate and out of order.
We don’t know what caused the horrific crash. We don’t know if it was engineer error, sabotage, equipment malfunction or just system incompetence.
Unfortunately, Republicans made it easy for the Democrats to demagogue the issue.
Cutting funding for Amtrak the day after the crash probably wasn’t the smartest optics, because it shined a light on Republican reluctance to spend more money on the quasi-government entity.
I took two round trips to New York on Amtrak last week, so I think I have a pretty good handle on the operation.
It’s not exactly a bargain to take the Acela. Taking a bus is much, much cheaper, flying is much, much faster and is priced competitively. Acela seems like the romantic thing to do, and theoretically is easier because it drops you off in Midtown.
But when you arrive in Penn Station, you feel like you are in Bombay or Denpasar or some other third-world country. It’s a disaster.
When my family arrived with me on my second trip to NYC, we had to take the elevator because we still have a toddler in a baby stroller. And of course, we got stuck on the elevator for 5 minutes, thoroughly panicking my 9 year old. Welcome to New York.
Penn Station is just a symptom of the wider problems that face Amtrak. There’s not enough resources spent on the system, and what resources it has are not spent properly.
John Mica, a bitter Amtrak critic, likes to focus on the fact that the agency loses money on food service, another symptom of an operation that can’t get its act together.
Any fool knows that when you have a captive audience, which by definition is the train riding public, you should be able to exploit that audience to your economic benefit. You think Major League baseball loses money on its food service?
Amtrak has never been able to figure out the private sector thing, from its very beginnings.
It was formed after Congress decided to drop the mandate that freight rail companies carry passengers. Many of those companies, facing stiff competition from the airline industry, were going bankrupt and back then, the favorite option of policy makers was to have the government take over.
Starting off in a deep hole, the chief plan of those running Amtrak seemed to be to keep digging.
Railroads, by their very nature, occupy an uneasy space in the private sector-public sector continuum.
It requires a lot of public space to run a railroad, very valuable space, especially in crowded areas. And getting that public space away from the public requires some interaction with the government.
You can’t build too many of them because space is limited.
From the very beginning of train service in this country, there was a public-private partnership. And when the railroad industry was the only game in town to ship products (livestock, manufacturing, agriculture), they had tremendous power to dictate prices and basically get their way.
One of the Great Depressions to afflict the United States, before the Great Depression and after the Civil War, happened because of a bubble caused by the selling of railroad stocks.
Railroads in the 1870’s had the same power as Google does today.
They were the future back then, and at some point in, the politicians had to get involved to protect the public interest.
Amtrak is a perfect example of the public interest not being particularly well-served.
Congress can’t decide how to proceed on the future of passenger rail in the country.
But one thing is clear: the way Amtrak operates today is not working.
It doesn’t have the right amount of resources and it doesn’t have the capability of managing the resources it does have effectively.
It might be time for some creative, out of the box thinking, because it would be a shame to allow problem to continue to fester. The American people deserve better.
America's debt complicates the effort to find a solution. Especially difficult for policy makers is the discretionary budget situation. Unless we find a way to reign in entitlement spending, we aren't going to find a new pool of money to fix Amtrak. None of this is easy. But one thing is clear. The status quo is not acceptable. We don't live in a third world country. We should stop acting like we do.