Acela Excess

Ah, Amtrak how you’ve let us down over the years. From abysmal on-time records to overpriced fares to misuse of funds to unsafe trains. No wonder nobody rides. How dare you beg for a hand-out. Subsidize this level of incompetence we shall not! The rail era is dead, let it die.

Or so the story goes. Reality is none of these statements are particularly well-founded. And the conclusion, though intuitive for many, ignores some critical (and apparently little-known) facts about how transport works in the US. For instance, the fact that automobiles are massively subsidized:

Because they do not pay the full price of driving, most car owners choose to drive as much as possible. They are making the correct economic decision, but not in a free market economy. As Hart and Spivak note, an appropriate analogy is Stalin’s Gosplan, a Soviet agency that set arbitrary “correct” prices for many consumer goods, irrespective of their cost of production, with unsurprising results. In the American version of Gosplan, gasoline costs one quarter of what it did in 1929 (in real dollars).

The American Gosplan pertains to shipping as well. In the current structure of subsidization, trucking is heavily favored over rail transport, even though trucks consume fifteen times the fuel for the equivalent job. The government pays a $300 billion subsidy to truckers unthinkingly, while carefully scrutinizing every dollar allocated to transit. Similarly, we try to solve our commuter traffic problems by building highways instead of railways, even though it takes fifteen lanes of highway to move as many people as one lane of track. This predisposition toward automobile use is plainly evident in the prevalent terminology: money spent on roads is called “highway investment,” while money spent on rails is called “transit subsidy.”
Suburban Nation

Recently, Amtrak made headlines with the Acela Express brake debacle. Certainly, it is a black eye for the system but it doesn’t mean much in the the grand scheme of things. Equipment failures happen. And, considering the degree to which Amtrak lacks funding, it’s fairly surprising that there hasn’t been a more serious incident. The Times puts it this way: “The Northeast Corridor – the tracks from Washington to Boston, which are the railroad’s major asset – has bridges and electrical cables that are decades past when they should have been replaced, and could fail in ways that would disrupt service for months.” Ain’t underfunding grand?

Bush’s proposed 2006 budget will effectively kill Amtrak by removing all federal support — the fed blaming Amtrak for being broken when the fed broke it. There are many theories about his motivation but perhaps the most likely explanation is simple ignorance, and he’s not alone.

Let’s be clear: Without Amtrak, roads will only grow wider and pollution worse. Without Amtrak, our dependence on foreign oil will have nowhere to go but up. Public transit is the future, not the past. The fed needs to give rail the same support as highways and airports, not toss it like trash when they’re the ones who trashed it.

For more, see Amtrak reformist James Coston at allaboard.org and NARP’s Amtrak 2006 funding tracker

image grabbed from railfanning.org

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