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Jewish World Review June 9, 2003 / 9 Sivan, 5763

George Will

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Consumer Reports

Train In vain? | David Gunn, 65 and a glutton for punishment, left retirement to run Amtrak. His office is in magnificently restored Union Station, a relic of something Gunn knows is gone forever -- the era of glamorous railroading. He explains his challenge by taking a visitor on a walk back to the 1930s.

He walks to the end of Union Station's passenger platform, looking north up the Washington-New York-Boston corridor. Almost everything that strikes the eye, Gunn says, from the transformers to the poles holding overhead electric power wires, was here in the 1930s, if not 1910. The foundations of more than 9,800 poles in the corridor are, Gunn says, "in trouble."

Deferred maintenance cannot forever be deferred for this railroad that two years ago mortgaged part of Penn Station in Manhattan to meet $300 million in expenses. Gunn's predecessor then said he was "absolutely confident" that Amtrak would reach "operational self-sufficiency by the congressionally mandated deadline in 2003."

"Fanciful" is Gunn's dismissal of the idea that Amtrak can end its deficit. Fanciful, too, is the idea that the government will quit subsidizing Amtrak operations in the Northeast Corridor. Without subsidies, those operations would end for 1.1 million passengers a month, who would be put into the corridor's already congested highways and air space.

Furthermore, it is fanciful to think Congress will subsidize the Northeast Corridor without legislative logrolling to guarantee continuing subsidies of long-distance trains (routes of at least 500 miles) beyond the corridor, where five-sixths of Americans live. Trains such as the Sunset Limited, which is not crowded on its runs from Orlando to Los Angeles via New Orleans. Or the Texas Eagle, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, lost $38.4 million in 2001 ($1.70 for every $1 of revenue) on its 33-hour runs -- its meanderings, actually; it averages 39 mph -- between Chicago and San Antonio.

Amtrak accounts for only three-tenths of 1 percent of intercity travel. Do at least Amtrak's Northeast Corridor operations make money? There are two answers: Don't be daft. And: Yes, if you disregard sufficient expenses. The same is true of the 12 daily trains that carry 200,000 passengers a month -- up 25 percent over last year -- in the San Diego-Los Angeles-Santa Barbara corridor. But by performing valuable services in congested regions, these services may help force the government to quit pretending that self-sufficiency is just over the horizon and to decide what kind of intercity rail service it wants to pay for.

Gunn's goals are minimal: "stability" of the physical condition of plants and equipment and of the operating deficit. His candor is unprecedented: He says that for the next five years, Amtrak will need subsidies declining only from $1.8 billion to $1.5 billion a year. That includes $4.5 billion of capital spending and, more depressing, $3.5 billion of operating subsidies.

"The marketplace," he says, "has been completely distorted by government investment." Government provides billions of dollars for traffic control and runways for airlines, highways for cars and trucks and buses. Manhattan, the nation's priciest real estate, is covered with streets that drivers do not pay the full cost of.

Perhaps Amtrak, or at least its Northeast Corridor operations, could be made into a private train-operating company, with federal and state governments responsible for infrastructure, as they are for airports and highways. Certainly Amtrak's financial distress should produce labor concessions, in pay and work rules, similar to those that bankruptcy proceedings have wrung from airline unions.

But Gunn, who has experience with five metropolitan transit systems (in Toronto, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington) knows that America is big and mostly thinly populated and that rail passenger service makes sense for short runs in densely populated areas. Nowhere in America are there the conditions that make Japan's high-speed trains profitable: dense population, negligible air service, very high gas prices to discourage driving. In 2000 Americans took 665 million plane trips and 22.5 million Amtrak trips.

Geography sets strict parameters of passenger rail productivity. An airliner, Gunn notes, can make two Chicago-to-Los Angeles round trips in a day; a train takes 45 hours to go one way. Thirty-two years and more than $40 billion in subsidies (in today's dollars) after Amtrak was cobbled together from the remnants of various passenger rail systems, a nationwide poll shows 71 percent public support for subsidizing Amtrak at current or increased levels. Support for Amtrak is strong among all regions, ages, education levels and income groups.

Amtrak -- long-distance trains, legislative logrolling and all -- should be counted as a cost of democracy. It is here to stay, like true love, only more so.

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