America's Best Hope for a
The new session of Congress is presented with perhaps the best opportunity to finally make intercity rail passenger service a meaningful component of our nation's transportation system. While the tragic events of September 11 clearly show the need for what the military calls 'adequate redundancy' in our transport system for national security, the reasons to preserve, expand and modernize the nation's underfunded passenger rail system are far more basic.
We have had decades of massive public subsidies to the nation's highway system (remember the 'National Defense Highway System', now called simply 'the Interstates'?), and similar largess to the aviation industry and to our waterways and ports. These funds have been provided for 'the public good'. At the same time, our nations private railroad opted out of the passenger business largely because the aging passenger system needed massive capital investment and the railroads could not raise the needed capital in the private marketplace, largely due to the competition from the government in its 'free' capitalization of every other mode of transport (road, air and water). Deterioration from lack of capital investment and erosion of the passenger rail market caused by the government's subsidies to the other transport modes made passenger trains unprofitable and the railroads wanted to shed these losses which were being born by the private railroads, not the public. We really thought we would never need trains again.
In May 1971, two-thirds of the nation's passenger trains ended. What was left was a 'skeletal' system, consisting of a fleet of aged, mostly unreliable passenger cars, dilapidated stations and, in many instances, deteriorated track. This 'cast-off collection' was transferred to Amtrak in 1971 to 'save' passenger service. Somehow, the concept that this new creation of Congress could become 'profitable' was engendered, even though no other form of transport could exist without massive public subsidies, subsidies that continue today.
The real miracle is that the nation's rail passenger system has survived at all, let alone in far better shape than it was in 1971. No business can survive without investment of adequate capital funding and provision of an operating revenue stream. While continuing to pour billions of public dollars into the alternate modes (roads, air, and water), only the nation's rail passenger system was measured by a standard of 'profitability'. This requirement has never entered into the vocabulary of the requirements for any of the other modes of transport.
Exactly what is the relevance of 'profitability' to provision of a national transport SERVICE in the first place? The national intercity rail system was intended to provide the American public with a SERVICE, and should be measured by its accomplishment of that mission, and funded accordingly. We provide fire, police, library and other services to our people and no one speaks of their 'profitability'. Services are supposed to be provided for the public good. Long-time rail passenger advocates can rattle off a myriad of benefits of rail in terms of safety, environmental and convenience.
Congress has a golden opportunity to 'right the past wrongs' regarding our national passenger rail system. Sure, Amtrak has some warts, so fix them. Amtrak certainly isn't Enron!
All things considered, looking at the national passenger rail system that is still in existence today (at least until October), and the new, modern trains which have now replaced all the rolling junk of 1971, Amtrak has done a remarkable job during the past 31 and 1/2 years. Much more can be done, and should be done to expand services, increase train frequencies and speed up the entire network. Some of this can be done in cooperation with the private freight-only (now) railroads and some of this will call for new publicly-owned tracks to permit time competitive speeds in 'corridors' like San Francisco-Los Angeles. All this will take an investment of capital funds (something Amtrak has been continuously promised but never provided) and an adequate and on-going stream of operating funds (again, something with which Amtrak has never been provided).
Critics will bewail the $23 billion Amtrak has been provided during the last 31-plus years. They conveniently overlook both what Amtrak has accomplished with those funds in rebuilding the old system, and what subsidies the public has given, and continues to give, to the other transport modes during that same time period. Bill Gates and his wife have provided more money to charity in the last few years than our federal government has provided to Amtrak in its entire existence. There is a message here.
A reasonable person would conclude that if the private airlines can walk into Congress and get $15 billion overnight, plus whatever amounts we spend on the airports, air traffic control system and the FAA, then surely a paltry billion or two annually will not bankrupt our government. It may just prove what we are finding out in California ... Americans LOVE passenger trains and will use them if they are frequent enough and modern enough. God knows, most drivers will do almost anything to avoid driving, and they pray for a viable train service.
Congress has a chance to put into place the mechanism that will give Americans a real choice about how we travel. A national system of intercity trains must be a part of America's transport network. Failure to provide this rail network will condemn us to rely on the hopelessly overloaded highways and increasingly frustrating air system.
The last two sessions of Congress have been presented with intercity passenger rail legislation to deliver the much-needed capital investments. The bills (both in the Senate and in the House) were jointly introduced by Republican and Democratic leaders. These bills engendered some 60 Senate co-sponsors (yes, that's 60 out of 100) who were not just 'supporters' but joint sponsors of the proposed legislation. In the House there were 188 co-sponsors (yes, 188 out of 435 total members), yet in the last two sessions of Congress these bills have been allowed to die. The American people are asking Congress for a modern, national passenger rail system that ties our nation together on the ground, and most of Congress has been on board. Enactment of this federal legislation is needed now.
This is the time for Congressional action, not inaction.
Eugene K. Skoropowski is Managing Director of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority with
offices in Oakland, California. Capitol Corridor Intercity Rail Service operates between San Jose -
Oakland/San Francisco - Sacramento - Auburn, California. It is a state-supported contract service with
Amtrak, in cooperation with the United Pacific Railroad.
CAPITOL CORRIDOR JOINT POWERS AUTHORITY
The above document was provided at the NARP (National Association of Rail Passengers) Regional Meeting held on Saturday, March 2, 2002, in Jack London Square, Oakland, California.