9.10.18

FAREWELL, AMTRAK.

Longtime transportation writer and Passenger Rail advocate F. K. "Fritz" Plous explains.
Unlike the federal government’s other three transportation responsibilities—highways, civil aviation and waterways—Amtrak is not positioned alongside the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Aviation Administration and United States Maritime Administration on the USDOT org chart. It is not equal to those three agencies in status, budget, access to the Secretary or influence on national transportation policy. Most important,  FHWA, FAA and MARAD have missions, among them, building infrastructure. Instead, Amtrak is a federally owned corporation with no explicit mission except that of making a profit, at which it inevitably fails because it must compete against these two stronger agencies that earn no profits (and aren’t required to) and thrive on huge government subsidies that dwarf that of Amtrak.

With no goals, no growth strategy and no meaningful success/fail criteria, Amtrak’s management is left to freestyle. Any set of interests powerful enough to get its paws on Amtrak can play with it—and they do. The reason why Amtrak is subject to so many influences is simple: The U.S. has no passenger train policy. Absent a policy and a bureaucracy to administer it, passenger trains have no theme, no role in the nation’s pursuit of a larger objective, such as mass mobility in the service of economic growth.
In part' that's because the Wise Experts expected Amtrak to go away after a few years, with the government being able to say "We tried, but we couldn't do it." (That might be the rationale behind Ronald Reagan bringing the conductor's change-counting machine to a budget meeting back in the day.)

Much like other temporary arrangements, though, sometimes reality catches on.
As Rush Loving makes clear in his magesterial [c.q.] The Men Who Loved Trains, President Nixon agreed to sign the 1970s Railpax legislation that created Amtrak only because the congressional aides who drafted it persuaded him that Amtrak would last only about five years. Passenger train ridership had been slumping since the end of World War II, and as the nation transitioned to Interstate highways and jet travel, the slump turned into a plunge that all the experts deemed irreversible. No business had ever survived what amounted to a mass repudiation by its customers, and there was no reason to suspect that a battlefield tourniquet like Amtrak could staunch the hemorrhage. Because Amtrak was expected to go out of business, there was no attempt to reform it, update it or find a permanent place for passenger rail in the nation’s larger transportation policy.

But a funny thing happened on Amtrak’s way to extinction: success. People confounded the experts by starting to ride the trains again. Congress, the Administration and the railroad industry couldn’t believe it, and most of them still don’t.

Loving provides a hilarious account of how Washington’s decision-makers and the Class I railroads who were depending on them stood blinking and squinting like moles dragged out into the sunlight when predictions of the passenger train’s death proved exaggerated, and Americans started riding the trains again—and demanding more trains. Amtrak didn’t know what to do.

And it still doesn’t, because the decision to run more passenger trains over more routes to more destinations is not a commercial one that can be made by a corporation—even a federally owned corporation. It’s a high-level policy decision that can be resolved only by the establishment of a new National Transportation Policy that positions passenger train development at the same level of importance as highways and civil aviation and creates a new passenger rail policy and development organ occupying the same line on the USDOT org chart as the FHWA and the FAA.
It's clear, Mr Plous concludes, that business as usual isn't working.
Today, the U.S. faces a third transportation emergency characterized not by sudden breakdowns as in 1916 or the appalling epidemic of fatal airline crashes between 1952 and 1961, but by a long twilight mobility blight in which American travelers lose millions of hours per year stranded on backed-up highways trying to reach congested airports, where they will lose another hour in a bovine shuffle through a tedious security ritual that has turned the speed and convenience of air travel into a national joke.
Airways and roadways are congested in part because Our Political Masters will not take on the challenges of applying congestion pricing (although the punditry is beginning to catch on: there will be good news on that score coming up in a few days) and because nobody wants to admit that there are too many roads, bridges, and airports.

The freight railroads, on the other hand, are (understandably) reluctant to allow government passenger trains onto their tracks, but perhaps what Mr Plous is doing is reinforcing an argument Trains columnist Malcolm Kenton recently made.

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