Reform for the rails

Amtrak: Competition won't fix the rail passenger system's infrastructure problems.

January 18, 2002

AMTRAK gets a lot of blame for failing to accomplish the impossible.

Congress wants it to become a national passenger railroad system, which means it must operate unprofitable train routes on creaky, outdated tracks.

But lawmakers also want Amtrak to become self-sufficient.

Talk about a conundrum.

A national passenger rail system will always need generous public support. That's true not just in America, but also in countries such as Germany and France, which operate much better systems than we do.

The Amtrak Reform Council, an oversight committee created by Congress, last week recommended that lawmakers allow private carriers to compete for Amtrak's passenger service.

You can almost imagine competitors lining up to operate trains along Amtrak's busy Northeast corridor.

But what private carrier will want to compete for trains running through Montana?

Amtrak's bottom line is certain to worsen if it gets stuck only with routes that nobody else wants.

Congress hasn't helped matters in the three-decade-old Amtrak experiment.

Its members decry the system as a money-losing operation, while parsimoniously giving only a fraction of the support Amtrak needs to fix tracks and tunnels so that train travel can reach its potential and become more attractive to passengers.

By contrast, another money-losing operation, the nation's highway system, receives $33 billion a year in federal funds -- 63 times as much as the $521 million that Amtrak receives.

The federal government spends on highways because it realizes that maintaining road infrastructure is serious business. Yet it treats requests for rail infrastructure improvement as if they're a joke.

It's time to curtail that kind of duplicity.

If Congress still believes that America needs a national passenger railroad system, it must provide significantly greater support so trains can get the most use of the tracks, and build a system that's worth competing for, not one shabbily held together by governmental duct tape.

The nonsensical goal of self-sufficiency should be abandoned.

Federal support for rail improvements is vital, regardless of who's running the trains.

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