The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are changing the way Americans think about a lot of things. One critically important area of this rethinking must involve our national transportation system — how we move people safely and efficiently across this vast nation.
In the aftermath of the hijacking of four airliners on a single morning, Americans are rediscovering our often-forgotten and shamefully-neglected passenger railroad system. Suddenly, trains are looking very attractive as alternatives to airplanes and automobile-clogged highways.
But, for the past half-century, passenger rail service has waged a tough battle for survival. For years, railroad corporations had a “common-carrier” responsibility to provide passenger service. The corporations, however, were much more interested in the lucrative business of hauling freight. Railroads let passenger service deteriorate (some actively discouraging it) so that the Interstate Commerce Commission would grant them permission to abandon their common carrier responsibility and allow them to discontinue what they had created as an unprofitable service.
Faced with the sad state of passenger service, Congress adopted the Rail Passenger Act in 1970, creating the National Railroad Passenger Corporation which became popularly known as Amtrak. The following year, most railroads still operating passenger service turned their equipment over to Amtrak and the new company took on the responsibility of operating intercity passenger train service.
It was a daunting task. Amtrak inherited passenger cars and locomotives that averaged more than 20 years old along with dilapidated train stations. Despite being consistently underfunded, Amtrak managed to rebuild passenger service from the ruins left by the railroad companies. Last year Amtrak carried a record number of passengers — 22.5 million.
The Northeast corridor accounts for more than half of Amtrak’s 60,000 passengers on most days. Passengers on those routes rose 17 percent in the days immediately after the attack and remain 10 to 13 percent higher than pre-September 11 totals. Amtrak was quick to respond to the emergency, putting on extra trains, honoring airline tickets and adding extra support staff.
While the Northeast corridor provides profits for Amtrak, the corporation must also maintain less-utilized and longer routes throughout the nation including those that are decidedly unprofitable. Congress insists that the service be provided, but it has been tight-fisted about providing subsidies to help maintain the system.
As the Los Angeles Times editorialized:
“For years Congress has tried to have it both ways. It has insisted on Amtrak maintaining a nationwide passenger-rail operation — with several unprofitable routes — but it doesn’t want to pay for it.” Congress has set a deadline of December 2002 for Amtrak to become totally “self sufficient” or be dismantled. This is an absurd requirement. Congress cannot insist on Amtrak carrying out a needed public service role in transportation and at the same time issue an edict that it show a profit. Western European countries operate superb rail systems that their governments have continued to subsidize as a integral part of their transportation system.
The demand for “self sufficiency” for Amtrak seems even more ridiculous in the face of huge transportation subsidies that the federal government has willingly ladled out for airlines and highways through the years. Since the 1971 chartering of Amtrak, highways and airlines have received $750 billion in federal support. Amtrak has received only $11 billion in the same period.
Last week, the Congress added to the subsidies with a $15 billion bailout package for the airlines. In contrast, Amtrak has asked for only $3.5 billion to fix problems with ventilation and evacuation routes in underwater tunnels to New York City as well as rehabilitating other tunnels and providing additional security measures in the wake of the attacks.
Clearly, the emergency funds don’t deal with the long-range needs of rapid rail passenger service for the entire nation. Despite the double standard that Congress has so often applied to Amtrak, there are some
encouraging signs that legislators in both parties see the growing need for more investment in rail travel.
Don Young, Republican from Alaska and chairman of the House Transportation Committee has introduced legislation to provide states with authority to issue $31 billion in bonds and to borrow $35 billion in low-interest loans to fund high speed rail projects. In the Senate, a majority of members have co-sponsored a bill to allow Amtrak to issue $12 billion in bonds to finance such a modern, speedy and efficient rail passenger system.
“We desperately need a third leg to our national transportation strategy,” Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a Texas Republican conservative, told the Senate. “I believe passenger rail can function in that role.”
These voices of support from conservatives for more investment in rail transportation may come as a surprise to many, but September 11 has been a call for the nation to think anew on a lot issues. One memorial to the victims of the disaster would be to build a better nation that serves the needs of its people.