Ben Jervey writes in Good Magazine (motto: “For people who give a damn”) about his Amtrak trip across the nation. I enjoy taking Amtrak, but only because flying is so bad. Jervey’s experiences are about the same: the train is chronically late, the food is terrible, and the services are sparse. I’ve been thinking about this article for a few days, and it really bums me out. The United States used to have the world’s greatest passenger rail system. Now we have a slow, inefficient system, neglected and ineffective, when the nation would benefit so much from having something on par with the European rail network.
What happened? About the same thing that’s happening to the airlines now. Consolidations and bankruptcies of the private carriers, though combined with the rise of the automobile and the passenger plane, plus unions unwilling to modify their rules to match the changing face of railroading. Pullman collapsed in 1969, Penn Central the next year. In 1970, under pressure from consumers, Congress created the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (dba Amtrak), a private corporation, but wholly owned by the federal government. It was federally subsidized, like airlines and automobiles. Nixon signed the bill into law, but figured it’d just be the dying gasp of passenger rail. Half of all routes were immediately eliminated. Many were converted to freight routes, with no passenger trains permitted. Major cities that once had a dozen train stations were reduced to just one, with the others abandoned or sold off to become shopping malls. (Fun fact: There are dozens of “Union Stations,” with the “union” bit meaning that they were jointly operated by multiple train lines.) And then came the long decline, the railroads sole investor—the U.S. government—unwilling to invest money into the upkeep for the infrastructure.
Ridership is up-up-up since 2001, for all of the obvious reasons, with each year since a record year. (Ridership in May was 12% higher than the prior May.) There are demands, especially from conservatives, that Amtrak be financially self-sufficient. Sen. John McCain has been a vocal critic of Amtrak, arguing that all subsidies for the company should be eliminated. That’s just goofy—no form of transportation is financially self-sufficient in the U.S. Passenger rail is 18% more efficient per passenger mile than cars or planes, and gets a good number of people off of our overcrowded roads.
The libertarian in me says Amtrak needs competition. The Democrat in me says we need to recognize that a vital passenger rail network is a national good, just like our interstate network, and we have to fund it under a socialist model. But the rail fan in me just wants to take a train ride across the country that isn’t unpleasant. I hope that happens soon.