Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 
Conjunction Junction, What Disfunction!
By David G. Young 

NEW YORK, October 18, 1998 --  

Fifty-six minutes after the scheduled arrival of Amtrak's Northeast Direct train #175 from Boston, the engine finally rolled into the station. It was a fairly typical Sunday evening service for Amtrak. As the train began to trudge forward toward its destination in Washington, DC, the conductor noted no unusual circumstances. "Just slow," he said.

Slow indeed. In the 28 years since the nationalization of America's passenger rail system, slow, overpriced service has become the norm. Sadly, Congress once again passed up an opportunity to undo its 28-year-old misdeed when it authorized $609 million in Amtrak subsidies as part of the budget agreement last week.1 The same Congress refused to even hear the Amtrak Privatization Act, sponsored by Rep. Joel Hefley (R-CO.)

The absence of productive legislation is not surprising given this Congress' shameful record. Last year it passed the ironically named Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act, which granted a huge $2.3 billion one-time subsidy. The "accountability" is supposedly based upon the law's weakly enforced goals of financial self-sufficiency in 2002.2 Given legislators' passion for sending pork-laden Amtrak bills to their constituents, it is unlikely that Americans will see any real reform.

The debate about whether to continue federal funding of Amtrak has changed little in the past two decades. Advocates insist Federal subsidies and control are imperative to prevent the discontinuation of less profitable Western and Midwestern lines. If a private profit motive is to replace the public interest, they say, passenger rail service will be lost to millions of Americans, and communities will be forced to sacrifice an important part of their heritage.

Amtrak's detractors have meanwhile insisted that the burden of maintaining thousands of miles of underused rail lines hurts both taxpayers and east coast travelers. It is these passengers -- along the potentially profitable Northeast Corridor served by train #175 -- that pay exorbitant rates to help subsidize the rest of the system. The reduced value offered on this line, where a close, dense population usually makes rail travel most efficient, leads to economic and environmental losses as large numbers of would-be train travelers switch to cars and planes.

The time is ripe for change in this debate. Besides the twenty years additional evidence highlighting free-market efficiency, private-rail advocates may soon find unlikely allies in the ranks of mass transportation activists. Faced with urban sprawl problems that rival Southern California, East Coast cities are struggling to solve their transportation problems without the need to build horrific new auto-dependent freeway systems.

Advocates of expanded rail-based mass transit have long been firmly entrenched in the public ownership camp. Since all of the urban rail systems constructed in the past 30 years have been public ventures, it is not surprising that they see government leadership as the only solution.

But it is instructive to remember that the New York subway -- America's most extensive and efficient urban rail system -- was built 100 years ago as a private venture. More recently built urban rail systems, such as those in Washington, DC, Miami and Los Angeles, are monuments to inefficiency.

DC's system, which is nearing completion after almost 30 years of construction, loses almost $100 million per year. It offers infrequent, unreliable service, despite its envious position of serving a city with a highly centralized commuting pattern and relatively dense population. The failure of Miami's Metrorail system to attract even minimal public usage has earned it the name "Metro-fail."3 Los Angeles' even newer system has become a national laughingstock with its incredible cost overruns and construction delays. The situation in L.A. has become so bad that serious discussion has been given to abandoning construction.

The problem with these rail systems, as with Amtrak, has been a horribly inefficient allocation of resources as government has attempted to force rail service in places where it is not practical. Unlike urban rail, however, Amtrak's far-flung service does not enjoy the support of the environmentalists and urban idealists who have made up the core of the movement for mass transportation. If these people can be convinced that privatizing Amtrak and focusing its service on viable areas advances their agenda, a coalition could be formed that might bring down the nationalized rail system and have great benefits for the country.

The case for environmentalists should be clear. The inflated $150 Amtrak ticket price from Washington to New York makes travel by airlines and automobiles competitive with rail travel. Would-be rail passengers are thereby forgo the environmentally friendly locomotive for fuel guzzling cars and airplanes. For underused routes in Western states, this case is even stronger. Short, empty trains totally eliminate the environmental advantage of rail transport.

The urban idealists should realize that a new private player in the passenger rail market would greatly expand opportunities for private participation in urban rail construction. Private efforts to deliver commuter transportation services have been greatly harmed by the absence of commercial experience. A reinvigorated American commercial rail system would help provide practical experience that could once again deliver private participation in viable urban rail construction.

Sadly, any hope for success in this movement will probably have to wait until the fiscal 2000 budget debate. With luck and effort, however, Amtrak's detractors will join with mass transit activists to make American passenger rail in the 21st century as efficient of a means of transportation as it was a century ago.


1. Amtrak's Web Site, Congress To Approve Full Funding For Amtrak, October 16, 1998

2. Government Printing Office, Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997

3. The Cato Institute, Cato Handbook for Congress: Urban Policy, 1997