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Look to California!

Congress: Take a Look at California.

Congress: Take a look at California.
Reprinted from the March 2002 issue of Railway Age,

By Eugene K. Skoropowski

The new session of Congress is presented with perhaps the best opportunity to make intercity rail passenger service a more-meaningful component of our nation's transportation system. While the tragic events of Sept. 11 clearly
show the need for what the military calls "adequate redundancy" in our transport system for national security, the reasons to preserve, expand, and modernize the nation's underfunded passenger rail system are far more basic.

A reasonable person would conclude that if the airlines can walk into Congress and get $15 billion overnight, plus whatever is spent on airports and the air traffic control system, then surely a billion or two annually will not bankrupt our government. Such an investment may just prove what we have found out in California: Americans like passenger trains and want more
of them.

We have had decades of massive public subsidies to the nation's highway system, and similar largess to the aviation industry and to our waterways and ports. These funds have been provided for "the public good." At the same time, our private railroads opted out of the passenger business largely because the aging passenger system needed massive capital investment and the railroads could not raise the needed capital in the private marketplace, due to the competition from the government in its "free" capitalization of every other mode of transport.

In May 1971, two-thirds of the nation's passenger trains went away. What was left was a skeletal system, consisting of a fleet
of aged, mostly unreliable passenger cars, dilapidated stations, and, in many instances, deteriorated track. This cast-off collection was transferred to Amtrak to "save" passenger service. Somehow, the concept that this new creation of Congress could become profitable was engendered, even though no other form of transport could exist without massive public subsidies.

The real miracle is that the nation's rail passenger system has survived at all, and in far better shape than it was in 1971. No business, private or public, can survive without investment of adequate capital funding and provision of an operating revenue stream. While continuing to pour billions of public dollars into alternate modes, only the nation's rail passenger
system was measured by a standard of profitability-a standard that never entered into the vocabulary of the requirements for any other mode.

Government provides fire, police, library, and other services to Americans for the public good, and no one requires them to be profitable. So exactly what relevance does profitability have to provision of a national transport service? Amtrak was formed to provide the American public with a service, and should be measured by its accomplishment of that mission and funded accordingly.

That's how the state government in California regards passenger rail, and that's why Caltrans (the state DOT) has moved so aggressively to develop and fund new services-with freight railroads like Union Pacific as partners. Congress has a golden opportunity to right the past wrongs regarding our national passenger rail system. If it wants a successful example of how
things can be done, it should give California and its public/private partnerships a serious look. Critics will bewail the $25 billion Amtrak has been provided since 1971. They overlook what Amtrak has accomplished in rebuilding the old system, and what subsidies are given other transport modes.

All things considered, looking at the national passenger rail system and the new, modern trains that replaced all the rolling junk of 1971, Amtrak has done a remarkable job during the past 31 years. Much more can and should be done to expand services and increase train frequencies and speeds. Some of this can be done in cooperation with the freight railroads, as has
been done on the San Jose-Oakland/San Francisco Capitol Corridor with UP. Some of this will call for new publicly-owned tracks to permit time-competitive speeds in corridors like San Francisco-Los Angeles. All this will take capital and an adequate, ongoing stream of operating funds.

Legislation for funding intercity passenger rail with much-needed capital investment has been introduced in the last two sessions of Congress by Republican and Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate. Various bills have had numerous co-sponsors, yet in the last two sessions of Congress, those bills died or were tabled.

With Amtrak's future hanging in the balance, this is the time for Congressional action-not inaction. What as an industry can we do to insure that Congress doesn't once again push aside legislation affecting passenger rail?

Eugene K. Skoropowski is Managing Director of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, which operates the Capitol Corridor, a state-supported contract service with Amtrak, in cooperation with Union Pacific.

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