Instead of derailing Amtrak, the federal government should increase its investment.
Thursday, May 16, 2002
Photo by Stan Godlewski; Amtrak''s Acela, a new generation high-speed train, cut one and a half hours off the commute from New York to Boston, and brought celebrities on board.
Gas is expected to cost $2 a gallon this summer, highways are as clogged as the bronchial passages of an old Borscht Belt comedian and ongoing security fears are keeping plenty of people from the airlines.
So why is Amtrak about to go out of business? Have you heard the news? America''s railroad is on the ropes again, drowning in debt, choked by unprofitable long-distance lines and battling with Congress for every penny.
A few weeks ago, Amtrak president George Warrington, tired of having to go to Congress every year with his hat in his hand, went on the offensive. He told his overseers in Congress that without a hike in its annual budget and a several-billion-dollar infrastructure investment, long-distance routes in 46 states would have to be eliminated and repairs and improvements delayed.
There''s a bit of a Catch-22 at work here: Every politician worth his weight in pork wants to maintain rail service in his district. But few want to pay for it. Warrington addressed that head-on: "Everyone knows that you can''t make a profit while running a network of unprofitable trains, but that is exactly what we''re expected to do."
Amtrak makes a nice profit on its Northeast Corridor service-thanks to a government investment a few years ago that got the Acela train up and running-but loses money on lines that the railroad can''t eliminate without taking a bullet politically. But if Amtrak can make a profit in the Northeast Corridor, there''s no reason why the railroad couldn''t do the same in other regions-provided the government makes an investment to upgrade Amtrak''s service.
Sounds like it was time for one of my patented fact-finding tours (OK, it''s only "patent pending," but that''s only because of the backlog at the Trademarks and Patent office in D.C.). This time, I hopped an Acela train from New York to Baltimore and then caught another from the Big Apple to Beantown. I''d never been on Amtrak''s version of the "bullet train," which went into service almost 18 months ago. Up to this point, my experiences with Amtrak had been limited to its overpriced and slow regular service between New York and D.C. and its pricier, plusher, slightly swifter cousin, the Metroliner.
The service was average, at best, and if I was traveling off hours, I always took the Peter Pan bus for one-eighth the cost. But Acela is not just a muscular Metroliner. Sure, it''s fast, making the Midtown Manhattan to Union Station run in roughly three-and-a-half hours-and, at $144, it''s a good $70 less than the Delta Shuttle-but it''s also comfortable and classy, as if Amtrak only lets its best conductors and train cleaners work the route. And they serve a brownie on that train.
Acela is even glamorous. When I got on the train in Baltimore, actor Ralph Fiennes took the seat across from me. He couldn''t have been more gracious, although he resolutely refused to eat his brownie despite my entreaties (watching his weight, he said). He also spent the first half of the trip with a toothpick in his mouth (whatever).
On the Boston leg of my trip, writer Tom Wolfe was one seat behind me in one of his hand-made suits with the ivory buttons, the custom-fitted shirt with perfect cufflinks and the matching tie and pocket handkerchief. I mean, this man was immaculate. Not even my six-month-old daughter, who spent the entire trip smiling and flirting with the Great Writer, could divert his attention away from his Wall Street Journal, which he read for three straight hours. You can do that on Acela, I guess.
Despite the celebrities, it''s just so much more pleasant traveling by rail than by car or plane. On the Acela, you can walk around, plug in a laptop, get work done and arrive at your destination without traffic or airport hassles.
Of course, I''m willing to admit that conditions in the Northeast-the traffic, the proximity of major cities, the inaccessibility of airports, the tolls-aren''t always applicable to the rest of the country. But that''s our fault, not the railroad''s.
But before you get in a huff about my call for greater government support for the national rail system, keep in mind that the government already subsidizes air and road travel to the tune of $40 billion a year. By comparison, Amtrak gets a measly $500 million-and has to beg for it every year. No wonder Warrington recently resigned from Amtrak, a national rail network, to run NJ Transit, a rinky-dink commuter system. He''d had it.
If you think that the government shouldn''t be in the business of subsidizing Amtrak, that''s fine. But then the government really shouldn''t be in the business of subsidizing Greyhound or United Van Lines by building the roads that its buses and trucks use. Then of course, the government shouldn''t be in the business of subsidizing the airlines by paying for the nation''s air-traffic control system and the construction of airports. And while you''re at it, the government shouldn''t even be in the business of subsidizing you and your nice big SUV by keeping tolls and fuel taxes lower than they would be if such fees were fully financing road construction and maintenance rather than just a tiny share.
I had worked myself up to such a liberal lather that I called Mike Dukakis, who would''ve been elected president in 1988 if he hadn''t worn that stupid Army helmet during a photo-op. I also called him because he''s on the Amtrak board.
"There''s this strange conceptual disconnect between highways, air and rail, as if Congress can subsidize them but not us," Dukakis said. "Think about what we could do if we bring that kind of service, say, to the Los Angeles-to-San Diego route. With an investment of $900 million, we could add service and cut an hour off the trip. That would double the ridership and make that route profitable."
That sounds good to me. As long Congress doesn''t ruin the brownies.
Gersh Kuntzman, former news editor of the Weekly, writes for Newsweek.com.