Here is a thoughtful analysis from long time Friends of
Amtrak supporter and rail advocate Lee Winson:
I am wondering if perhaps critics and supporters of Amtrak have forgotten why Amtrak was originally created. According to
Amtrak literature I have from the early 1970s: [paraphrased]
The United States recognized that highways and airports would not be adequate to meet the nation's growing transportation needs, and the passenger train had a role to play.
My thoughts on this matter are:
The existence of Amtrak provides a vital support to transportation. Airlines go out on strike, airports get fogged in, highways get jammed. Amtrak provides an alternative, especially for regional travel.
Nowhere have I seen any suggestion that Amtrak was supposed to be profitable. After all, the private railroads had been unable to make a profit on psgr train service since the early 1950s, so it is illogical to expect that Amtrak would be profitable.
Both the highways and and airports/airways in the U.S. are badly overcrowded, and needed capacity improvements and basic
maintenance will cost trillions. Expanding an _individual_big city airport costs one billion dollars. More significantly,
there simply isn't land available to pave over for highways and airports without destroying the community it's intended to serve.
What would happen if all the Amtrak passengers arriving in Chicago were diverted to Chicago's badly overcrowded highways and airports? How much worse would the existing delays be?
Regarding Amtrak's history, several things should be noted:
1) Amtrak operates under higher environmental and service standards than the freight railroads before 1971. Amtrak
must use retention toilets, higher sanitation rules for food handling, and provide for ADA access. All of these
things cost money.
2) Amtrak operates under stricter safety standards. Engineers used to make up time by exceeding track speed limits. Before
1971, there were no radar guns or "black boxes" to track speed. Today speed is carefully checked, not only by on board equipment, but also FRA inspectors with radar guns. Further, train movements are further restricted than in the past in the interest of safety. The result of all this is not only improved safety, but a higher cost to run a train at the same speed as in the past.
3) Amtrak had to build itself up from nothing, while maintaining service. Amtrak inherited a largely worn out decrepit infrastructure. Over the years, it invested billions in buying new or rebuilt locomotives, passenger cars, maintenance shops, track beds, reservation/ticketing systems, and stations. Critics who said the money invested in Amtrak
over the last 31 years was wasted ignore this effort.
4) The subsidies given to aviation and motor transport come from a variety of sources and not easily tracked. For instance, my municipal property taxes pay for police/fire/rescue services needed on I-95, a major national highway.
I don't think that tax contribution is reflected on the cost of running the highway. Likewise, many municipalities give grants to support their local airports, they are not a self sufficient operation as claimed. There is no way airlines could finance the cost of owning and operating airports as union terminals in the manner that railroads used to do.
Likewise, if all toll roads and bridges were sold to private owners, it would be difficult and expensive to obtain needed
financing. And of course highway and airport facilities do not pay any real estate taxes on the vast amounts of land they consume.
Thanks to Friends of Amtrak for this column.
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