Jewish World Review Oct. 26, 2001 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Consumer Reports

Derail these subsidies -- "I ASSUME I'm talking to a big fan of rail," says Michael Dukakis with a laugh. "Right?"

To tell the truth, I have no strong feelings about train travel one way or another. But Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and now Amtrak's acting chairman, knows I am no friend of transportation welfare or government bailouts for failing enterprises. That predisposes me against Amtrak's request for $1.8 billion in post-Sept. 11 "disaster" aid and billions more for long-term capital improvements. But I wanted to give Dukakis a chance to change my mind.

His argument in a nutshell is that passenger trains are important to the nation's transportation network, and that if Amtrak can count on a steady influx of federal funds -- around $1.5 billion a year, he suggests -- it will be able to improve its service and carry a larger proportion of the nation's travelers.

That is roughly the argument that Amtrak has been making since it was created 30 years ago, and so far it has been good for more than $25 billion in government subsidies (including a whopping $3.9 billion in the last three years alone). Yet its service remains poor, its finances are a mess, and its share of the travel market has vanished to almost nothing. Amtrak carries just three-10ths of 1 percent of intercity passengers in the United States and loses an average of $25 on every ticket it sells. By any standard, it is a proven failure.

Ah, but terrorism changes things, Dukakis says. "Tragically, what's happened as a result of Sept. 11," he told a press conference last month, "is that some skeptical members of Congress have started to realize that if we didn't have a rail system, this country would be on its back." He and other Amtrak backers felt vindicated when train ridership jumped 17 percent in the days following the attacks.

But that surge was hardly a vote of confidence in Amtrak -- civilian planes were grounded, and tens of thousands of stranded travelers had to find another way home. Even after passenger flights resumed, the Washington and Boston airports remained closed for several days, which helps explain why reservations for Acela Express trains between those two cities rose by 40 percent. Sleeper cars (available on about 17 of the longest routes) showed an increase too. But nationwide, Amtrak ridership fell 6 percent last month. Trains have their fans, but for the vast majority of US travelers, riding the rails is simply impractical or unappealing -- even when they're feeling jittery about planes.

"Will Amtrak's new riders stick with the railroad?" ask Edward Hudgins and Joseph Vranich in an illuminating new monograph on passenger rail for the Cato Institute. "History says no." In case after case, surges in Amtrak ridership caused by external events -- like the 1973 OPEC oil embargo that sent air fares soaring -- evaporated when the crisis ended. Nor does Amtrak usually benefit from airplane disasters. Train ridership sank to its lowest level in a decade in 1996 -- the year of the ValuJet crash in the Everglades and the TWA Flight 800 disaster off Long Island.

Amtrak seized on the Sept. 11 calamities as a chance to lobby Congress for $3.2 billion in "disaster" aid -- even though it suffered no disaster. (The Senate Commerce Committee whittled that sum to $1.8 billion and sent the measure to the full Senate, where it awaits a vote.) The money is needed, Dukakis explains, to fix serious safety problems, like those at the six tunnels that carry passengers into New York's Penn Station. "Those tunnels need a ton of work," he tells me. "It should have been done 25 years ago." He's right; Amtrak has known about the tunnels' shortcomings at least since 1978. Should we really keep pouring money into an operation with such an egregious record of neglect?

Far outstripping Amtrak's "disaster" request is the proposed High Speed Rail Investment Act, which would allow Amtrak to borrow $12 billion interest-free for the purpose of developing high-speed train routes around the country. "If you invest in high-speed corridors," says Dukakis, "with trains doing 110, 120 [mph], the passengers will come flocking."

Not true, reply Hudgins and Vranich. "Amtrak dangles promises of 'bullet trains' to an unsuspecting public," but that is not what the bill requires. "The result of this 'high-speed' rail program in many cases would be yet more Amtrak trains running no faster than those run by private railroads decades ago."

This is not the carping of a rail-basher: Vranich is the author of Supertrains, a former head of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a one-time Amtrak spokesman, and a past president of the High-Speed Rail Association. "I am a 30-year-advocate of high-speed trains in America, and I no longer want to give a penny to Amtrak," he said the other day. If it hasn't improved after three decades and $25 billion, there is little chance it will improve with even more time and more money.

In pleading Amtrak's case, Dukakis is characteristically earnest and informed; he clearly believes there is nothing wrong with it that another $1.5 billion a year won't cure. But to be "a big fan of rail" does not have to mean being a fan of Amtrak. There are better, cheaper, more rational ways to provide great train service to the small market niche that wants it. It's time for Amtrak and its endless subsidies to end, and for something better to rise in its place.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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