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Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen
Illinois State Legislative Board

Let’s Do Some Railing

Just before Congress slunk away for the three-day weekend — which it was, of course, planning to stretch into a week — senators from the Northeast held a press conference to denounce Republicans for underfunding Amtrak passenger rail service.

“Amtrak has some infrastructure that is so old it was built and put into service when Jesse James and Butch Cassidy were still alive and robbing trains,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York.

“In Connecticut we have a bridge that was built when Grover Cleveland was president,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

Now you have to admit, this is pretty compelling. Especially if you merge them together and envision Butch Cassidy and Grover Cleveland robbing commuters on the Acela Express.

We’ve all been thinking about it since the terrible derailment in Philadelphia earlier this month. In a moment of stupendously bad timing, House Republicans chose the day after the accident to cut more than $1 billion from the $2.45 billion the Obama administration had requested for Amtrak.

Speaker John Boehner said any attempt to link the two things was “stupid.” As only he can.

Let’s take a middle road, people, and assume that while the Philadelphia crash might not be directly related to any funding cut, it’s a good reminder that running packed trains through 19th century tunnels and bridges is asking for trouble.

Amtrak is a managerial mishmash, trapped under the thumb of Congress, and also responsible for long-distance service across the country, touching cities from Chicago to New Orleans to Grand Rapids to Salt Lake City on a series of routes that are never going to make money. Conservative groups that call for the privatization of Amtrak are basically envisioning a system where the Northeast Corridor is left to fend for itself while the money-losing routes fade into history.

“Ideally, we would like to see all transportation spending and taxing devolve to the states,” said Michael Sargent of The Heritage Foundation.

None of the Northeastern senators at the press conference complained about the cross-country money-losers. Perhaps that was out of deference to their colleague, Dick Durbin of Chicago. Perhaps they instinctively understood that no matter what the drain, Amtrak has a better chance of political survival running through 46 states. It’s a theory that works great for the Defense Department.

Maybe the senators just had a national vision of what national rail service is supposed to be.

“It’s worth reminding our colleagues the Northeast Corridor is the only part that makes money,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut in a phone interview. “But that doesn’t mean I want to get rid of the rest of the system. If we only kept the portions of government that made money, there wouldn’t be any point to the State of Connecticut running a Department of Children and Families anymore.”

Wow, I believe I see a majority for the pothole. Remind me to tell you about how members of Congress just passed the 33rd super-short-term highway bill because they haven’t been able to come up with any normal road repair funding since 2008.

Transportation unites the country, but the crowded parts and the empty parts have different needs. Cities require mass transit, which is something that tends to irritate many rural conservatives. (It’s that vision of a whole bunch of strangers stuck together, stripped of even the illusion of control.) Remote towns and cities need connections to survive, even though the price tag seems way out of proportion to those of us who don’t live on, say, an Alaskan island.

Amtrak’s operating budget is about the same as the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes commercial air service to remote communities. Most of the flights are at least two-thirds empty. CBS News, in a report earlier this year, found one flight between Kansas City, Mo., and Great Bend, Kan., that generally carried only a single passenger.

Everybody knows that the government can waste money. (If you have any doubts, I will refer you to a recent report by Pro Publica about a glorious new $25 million, 64,000-square-foot headquarters the military constructed for American troops in Afghanistan even though said troops were going home.) But making money-losing links between different parts of the theoretically United States doesn’t seem to be in that category.

Fix Amtrak. Connect the country.☐

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