Every time some one in Congress looks for an easy target, something to cut out of the budget – especially a Republican representative – Amtrak seems to drop right into the cross-hairs. An easily visible item, one that doesn’t have a lot of folks behind it, right?
That would be “No”.
For the 11th straight year, Amtrak has reported that more people than ever before are riding trains. Yes, you read that right. More people riding passenger trains operated by Amtrak than ever before. Even Fox News says so. Read it right here.
But let us go back to the beginning and talk about why Amtrak (a.k.a. the National Railroad Passenger Corporation) exists. Even though the golden era of the passenger train passed, thanks to jet air travel and the Interstate Highway system, passenger trains were profitable. They made money for the companies that operated them. Why? Because many of them also carried the US Mail. And on many trains, they also handled a lot of small packages. Ever heard of Railway Express Agency? The Fed Ex or UPS of that time. Want to hear something shocking? Both the USPS and REA, funded by you and me. From the Federal government budget.
But in a move still debated today, the Postal Service decided to abandon railway mail service in 1967. Sorting of mail was no longer performed aboard trains. With that, REA also ended most service as well. And surprise, without that income, passenger trains were no longer profitable.
Rather than see the end of railway passenger service entirely (because in some places, the train was and still is, the only way to get to or from there),in 1970 the Nixon administration – yes, shockingly a Republican one – was convinced to create a Federally funded passenger service. In the northeast, Amtrak even stepped in and bought the railroad right of way, all the tracks and associated structures along with it. They helped out with one of the biggest corporate blunders of the 20th century, the Penn Central bankruptcy.
Now, if the railroads would agree to go along with conditions set in place, they could get out of the passenger business. Most did, but a few stuck things out and continued running passenger trains on their own. It was a good business plan. Railroads sold a good deal of their equipment and facilities to Amtrak. And they got paid to run the trains, too. Just like they had been doing for years. Call it what you will, it was a Federal subsidy. They took it, just as they had taken the monies that came from the Postal Service and REA.
If every thing had gone right, Amtrak probably would have been around for 5 years or so and quietly gone away. Folks would have ridden trains less and less. Service would have been eliminated and that would have been the end of it. But it didn’t.
The Arab Oil Embargo changed how people thought of rail travel. Instead of not riding, people rode the trains and in good numbers, too. Amtrak found that if you ran trains, people rode them. It didn’t cut service, it extended it, adding trains. Over time, that equipment that Amtrak bought from the railroads was wearing out. New cars and locomotives were added. And again, as word got out, more people rode trains.
Shockingly, Amtrak has managed to recover more every year from fares to help cover costs. Does it break even? No. Show me a government subsidized business that does. Everything from highways to airports, if it gets Federal dollars, it doesn’t cover all the costs associated with it. if it did, why would it need those Federal dollars?
Amtrak has been proactive in funding in many areas. It has a number of corridors, such as the Capitol Corridor here in Northern California, where states have stepped in and helped fund expansion of operations through purchases of new equipment and other items such as facilities. Many of these continue to be success stories.
One area that could use such vision? Yes, that Northeast Corridor. The railroad Amtrak bought over 40 years ago. If the states it ran through supported it as is done in other corridors, the amount of Federal dollars needed to support it would be decreased. Simple math.
Can you compare Amtrak to passenger rail service in other countries? You can and you can’t. In areas where population density and car ownership/use is similar, there may be lessons to be learned on both sides of the coin. In areas where a dissimilar density exists, comparisons don’t always match up. Amtrak still pays the railroads for the right to operate passenger trains over their lines. In many of those other countries, that is not the case. Again, Federal dollars come into play.
Can Amtrak do better? Sure, no question. There is room to improve. Always will be. Amtrak is far from perfect, but it is getting better all the time.
I suspect Amtrak will still be here, operating trains after the election no matter the results. The same thing that kept the trains running all those years ago is still true today. No one in Congress wants to see service eliminated in their district. They didn’t want to lose a vote then and they still don’t 40 odd years later.