No one could call me anti-train. For 30 years, I've been a staunch supporter of rail passenger service in America. I argued to create Amtrak, our national railway system, when I was executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers in the early 1970s. Later, as a spokesman for Amtrak, I argued to expand it. Today, I'm still a champion of passenger trains. And I could still favor government funding to keep the trains running -- on one condition: that not a penny of it goes to Amtrak.
Amtrak just doesn't deserve any more of the government largess it has managed to fritter away over the decades. Despite billions in subsidies from Congress and countless breaks on paying its bills, the rail service today is nearly insolvent, burdened by high costs and meager traffic, and unable to lift itself out of a morass of its own making.
Amtrak's post-Sept. 11 situation is ominous. Although the railway claimed a big spike in ridership after the terrorist attacks, new figures show that claim was exaggerated. Sure, traffic increased on a few lines, but on most of the system, it actually fell. If skittish air travelers won't shift to long-haul trains today, when will they?
I've become convinced Amtrak will never succeed. If we want a truly workable passenger train system in America, it's time to pull the plug on Amtrak and direct our money toward a totally new and demonstrably successful approach of public-private partnerships and state franchises.
Amtrak's fundamental problem has been its failure to invest enough of its capital subsidies in promising routes, such as the heavily traveled Washington-New York-Boston line. Instead, the railroad's board of directors has squandered billions of dollars on unsalvageable long-distance routes that carry an infinitesimal number of people.
That could change soon. The Amtrak Reform Council, created by Congress in 1997 to monitor the railroad's performance, is preparing a blueprint for the railway's reorganization that it will present to Congress on Feb. 7. Its proposal may urge that short-distance trains in populous corridors be spun off to the states through which they run, and that long-distance routes that lose boxcar-loads of money be eliminated.
All I can say is, it's about time. I've been urging for several years that states run a franchise system, contracting with private companies to run trains on the short- to medium-length routes. I have no doubt that companies will step forward to bid. Several years ago in Pennsylvania, Railway Services Corp. offered to take over the trains between Harrisburg and Philadelphia even though the state was offering no inducements. Amtrak blocked the move.
Other companies that have said they are interested in running some routes include British-based Virgin Rail, Missouri-based Herzog Transit Services, French-based Connex and Stagecoach, the company that operates the largest British rail franchise. On the public side, New Jersey Transit recently voted to take over some Amtrak trains that serve Newark. New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority wants to purchase two Amtrak tunnels leading into Manhattan.
Amtrak insists it will still deliver a bright future if we just give it more money. It would have us believe that all over the world, nations spend from a bottomless pit of public funds on their passenger systems. But in fact, financial pressures are leading to transformations and privatization of railroads in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy and Britain. In many of these countries, profitable companies provide rail passenger services under contracts, franchises or concessions awarded and supported by public agencies.
British franchise operators are so successful that train traffic is the highest it has been since 1947. The traffic increase on their lines over the past five years alone is greater than Amtrak's total annual ridership. Virgin Rail, a brainchild of entrepreneur Richard Branson, has ordered 53 tilting trains, the largest-ever train purchase in Britain's history. Some franchises will continue to receive government subsidies, although at levels much lower than staid old British Rail required, while on other lines, subsidies will be phased out completely.
The bad news in the British effort comes from the Railtrack Authority -- owner of the track and infrastructure. Its inadequate maintenance has contributed to train crashes -- just as Amtrak's improper track maintenance has contributed to accidents in the Northeast.
We can learn from the British successes and failures, and those of other countries. Take Japan. Amtrak insists that no passenger railway in the world makes a profit. But since the Japanese railroads were restructured in 1987 in a complex privatization, three of the six new railways that were created have been steadily profitable, and a majority of their shares have been sold to private investors.
Compare that to Amtrak, where the red ink flows and flows. Congress has given Amtrak more than $25 billion in federal subsidies since the 1970s, and a number of states have given it several billion more. In addition, Congress permitted the railroad to default on guaranteed loans in 1983, and ordered the Internal Revenue Service to give it a $2.2 billion income-tax "refund" in 1997, even though Amtrak has never paid a penny in income taxes. Yet Amtrak has managed to triple its debt to $3 billion in just the past few years.
Amtrak runs some bad trains that, if broken apart into shorter routes, can be made into good trains. For example, the Sunset Limited lopes between Orlando and Los Angeles carrying few passengers and losing millions of dollars annually. It's trying to serve a market that has pretty much vanished. Let's discontinue that route and reallocate equipment and employees to lines that would connect cities that are closer together, such as Houston and San Antonio, where market demand for a train is stronger.
A certain kind of long-distance train can survive: one that provides its passengers with a sentimental journey through spectacular scenery, aimed at vacationers and tourists who are willing to pay the price for a "land-cruise" experience. Canada's privately run, cruise-type train, the Rocky Mountaineer, has tripled ridership over a decade and earns a profit.
Spinning off publicly owned railroads isn't all new. The U.S. government once owned 85 percent of Conrail; when it sold the railroad in 1987, it was the largest initial public stock offering at that point in the nation's history. We have regionalized rail service before, too. The Alaska Railroad was defederalized in 1985 and turned over to the state. The railroad now carries more than half a million passengers annually, more than about two-thirds of Amtrak routes.
The justification for a national passenger railroad has evaporated and the money flow to Amtrak has to stop. Lawmakers should shelve all Amtrak-related legislation, including bond authority for "high-speed" trains in the Midwest and South, which is nothing more than a bailout in disguise. Amtrak asserts that its long-range "bullet trains" -- like one it proposes to build between our nation's capital and New Orleans -- are a viable alternative to air travel. This is a hoax. Not even the fastest trains can compete with air travel between cities more than about 300 miles apart.
Whatever we do about phasing out Amtrak must ensure that the key Washington-New York-Boston rail line keeps running without missing a beat. And we will have to determine who the future owner of that line should be. We can't justify continuing federal ownership because, after all, Washington doesn't own the Interstate highways (the states do) or airports (local authorities do). Should the Northeast corridor rail line be turned over to a multi-state authority, an idea first proposed by former senator Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) in 1962? (If so, I have a name for it: Nortrak.) Or should it be sold outright to private interests?
For me, this is no longer about trains. It's about setting the record straight on an entity that I now know is a dud. I regret my long role as an outspoken Amtrak ally. Today, I believe the only way to make passenger trains relevant is by making Amtrak irrelevant.