Wednesday, January 17, 2007

More Smoke and Mirrors For AMTRAK?

The answer to an inefficient, poorly managed service appears to be to throw more money at it:

Senators renew push for Amtrak authorization bill
WASHINGTON -- Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Trent Lott initiated a second attempt Tuesday to pass legislation that would set ambitious funding targets for Amtrak while also requiring the passenger railroad to become more efficient.

The bill, similar to one that passed 93-6 in the Senate last year but was never voted on in the House, would authorize $3.2 billion a year for Amtrak for the next six years. That amount includes direct funding of $1.9 billion and $1.3 billion in bond authority.

Amtrak received $1.3 billion from Congress for the 2006 fiscal year.

The bill would also establish a program of matching grants to states that invest in Amtrak service and calls on Amtrak to reduce operating expenses by 40 percent.

. . .

[Amtrak President Alex] Kummant declined to name specific areas where cuts could be made, but he noted that the program of matching funds for states would help reduce operating costs because it would require states to foot the bill for running trains in exchange for federally subsidized capital improvements.

. . .

The funding amounts set out in the legislation would serve as targets, but would not be guaranteed even if the bill passes. Separate appropriations would still be required.

The bill would also require a new accounting system for Amtrak, aimed at improving transparency, and would mandate security improvements throughout the U.S. rail system.

So the "efficiencies" and "cuts" seem to come principally from shifting costs to states, and the promised money isn't really promised. Well. Aren't we glad things will be different now?

I've long been of the opinion that AMTRAK is woefully underfunded. But it seems to me that if "cuts" and "efficiencies" can be achieved, it should be possible to do that even in the absence of additional funding. Promising umteen billion dollars to an organization that has proven somewhat inept at managing the expenses it currently has seems imprudent, to say the least.

So at the end of the day this looks like more of the same. What really needs to happen is that the policymakers need to decide whether a national rail service is something that we should have. If so, let's figure out how to do it properly, instead of paying lipservice to the idea in principle and then relegating it in deed to the status of ugly stepchild. If we really don't want national rail service, let's get rid of it and quit throwing good money after bad.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...


You are dead right in your analysis.

For too long, Congress has paid lip service to Amtrak and the idea of a national rail service. This is also not the first time that Congress has promised significantly more funding to Amtrak than it has been willing to ultimately deliver.

Transfering costs to the States, which are already financialy strapped, is generally no way to build a railroad, although in the case of certain larger states such as New York and California with potentialy intra-state corridors the idea could work out reasonable well.

From the standpoint of a New Yorker, I would like to see the State take over our intercity rail service because Congress has proven totally inept at doing the job. Of course I am also an American, and I am dissapointed that our federal government has reduced itself to this level of incompetence.

At the end of the day, cutting costs is not the problem at Amtrak. Obtaining efficiencies of scale is the real issue, especially considering the high fixed overhead inherent in railroading. Eliminating neocon fantasies of privitization from the Amtrak discussion would also go along way.

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You guys are missing the point.

This bill is a leap forward because it treats Amtrak like a transportation program, not a political football.

If you build a road, transit system, heck, even a bike path in America- states and local governments have access to Federal matching funds for investments that are part of transportation plans. There is no such program for rail. This bill institutes such a program.

Some states, particularly CA, WA, OR, IL, NC, VA, WI, and a few others, have gone ahead and made improvements to their rail systems without a Federal funding partner.

Outside of the Northeast Corridor (Boston-DC) and these states, the rest of the states contribute essentially NOTHING to fund Amtrak operations. The other states have been freeloading for years.

What this program is likely to do is to trim the size of the bloated long distance train network which carries very high subsidies per passenger. The long distance network will not go away, but some of the worst performing trains will.

This will free up some money in order to make track investments that speed trains in the denser, 100-500 mile corridors where rail can become competitive and superior to air travel. Examples include DC to Charlotte, NC; Portland, OR to Vancouver, BC; Chicago to St. Louis; etc.

By focusing rail investments in the urban areas where it can be most successful, the amount of money needed to subsidize operations will fall. Opening up the rail system to more operators is a good thing, too. Plenty of commuter rail services in the US are contact operated and remain fast, efficient, reliable and extremely safe.

Eventually, some of the inefficient, slow, low-frequency long distance routes will be broken up into faster, more reliable corridor services with top speeds near 110 mph.

Think about it. The government builds quality airports, but there's no AmFlight. The government builds quality highways, but there's no AmCar. Right now, the government doesn't build quality railroads, and there is Amtrak. This bill is about reversing the equation so that passenger rail policy reflects the more successful highway and air infrastructure provision model that has been in place for decades.

Let's hope this thing passes.

9:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amtrak's network of long distance trains is hardly bloaded. To the contrary, it is too anemic to make efficient use of Amtrak's fixed-cost infrastructure.

Moreover, trimming the long distance network will do nothing to encourage the development of short-haul corridors. First, the development of short-haul corridor services is extremely expensive. Corridors often require major upgrades to tracks and signaling systems. Any costs saved by trimming the long distance network would provide precious little resources for short haul services. Indeed, the very existance of Amtrak's long distance network -- anemic as it is -- preserve the possibiliy even developing short-haul corridors at all by maintaining the existance of basic intercity passenger rail resources. Time and again, history has proven that once rail service is eliminated, employees go on to other jobs, station facilities close and go on to other uses, and tracks are most often downgraded (or removed altogether).

7:36 AM  

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