Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Amtrak: Passenger Fail

So what did I think of the Amtrak train crash last Tuesday in Philadelphia, which killed eight people?  I thought it only magnified how woefully underfunded the national passenger railroad is and how short-sighted our politicians are in dealing with it.  There could have been an upgrade in the tracks on that part of the Northeast Corridor - possibly a straightening - or a positive train control system, which Amtrak is mandated to install by the end of 2015, in place, but the government hasn't spent enough money to keep the railroad up to par with conventional - not high-speed, conventional - intercity rail services in other countries.  (As for the possibility of a projectile hitting the train and causing it to derail, I'm not sure how it relates to the train going at a higher speed, but such a projectile could have been a factor somehow.)  Despite Amtrak's best efforts to keep the rails running smoothly and safely, people still ended up dying.
Don't expect the tragedy to make the Republicans who control Congress to wise up about the need for greater support for Amtrak.  House Speaker John Boehner arrogantly dismissed the question of whether an infrastructural upgrade could have prevented the crash, calling it a "stupid question" and snidely noting that the train was traveling twice as fast as it should have.  He dismissed the issue as something Democrats have been exploiting to get more money for infrastructure.
In fact, the the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut  $251 million from Amtrak's budget for next year, and it rejected amendments to fully fund it a day after the crash, including an amendment that would have offered $825 million for positive train control technology. Republicans coldly argued that such an increase without cutting spending elsewhere would cause the bill to come in above the limit that Congress is able to spend on transportation.  (The New York Daily News headline could have read, GOP TO AMTRAK: DROP DEAD!)  When New York Democratic congressman and noted weenie Steve Israel tried to make the argument that improved infrastructure saves lives, Representative Mike Simpson (R-ID) angrily told him to stop exploiting the tragedy in Philadelphia for political gain.
Republicans have instead insisted that Amtrak ought to fend for itself and operate as a privatized system instead of being subsidized by the taxpayers (forget for a moment the taxpayer subsidies for aviation and highways), most of whom don't use Amtrak (not that Amtrak service is widely available to these same taxpayers, given the skeletal nature of its routes).  The railroad has only so much money to make improvements and meet its payroll to keep it running just adequately, and the money is spread pretty thinly.  
But as long as most of Amtrak's business is on the Northeast Corridor - the profits from which keep the entire system alive while it struggles in its Byzantine public-private status  - who in the Republican South and the West cares what happens to it?  And besides, it just so happens that the states that rely on Amtrak the most are Democratic states!  
The Northeast Corridor isn't just a luxury for people from Portland, Maine to Washington, D.C. - it's a way of life.  It's the easiest and most sensible way to get up and down the Northeast.  It's a necessary and vital part of the area's transportation network.  The distances between the major cities along its route are too short to travel by plane, and auto travel is frustrating.  President Obama's high-speed rail initiative sought (note tense) to not only improve intercity rail service in the Northeast but also in other parts of the country.  One proposed high-speed train route would have enhanced the existing intercity rail system by simply adding a travel option; in Ohio, there's no existing passenger train line along the Interstate 71 corridor between Cincinnati and Cleveland.  The high-speed line that would have run there, which Ohio governor John Kasich killed upon entering office, would have brought rapid rail to the Buckeye State and created rail service that isn't there now.  But the Tea Party dismissed intercity rail as a boondoggle, and got Republican governors like Kasich elected to put a stop to all that nonsense.  But then, you already know that.
What you may not know is this: Conservatives don't like passenger trains, and they simply do not want them.  They talk about how government-funded passenger train projects are just foolish, money-losing pork-barrel projects, and that privatization would provide better, more advanced passenger rail service.  But then, even if it did, many conservatives go on to say, trains would still be slower than jet airliners and less convenient than cars.  They have even tried using class warfare in their fight against intercity rail transit, snidely commenting how Amtrak and its Acela service are conveniences for the upper classes who ride them at the expense at the rest of the taxpayers.  The simple truth is that intercity passenger rail is more energy-efficient, benefits urban cores, and provides greater mobility for people who can't fly or drive.  Conservatives don't care about energy efficiency, loathe cities, and disregard people who can't fly or drive because they've never met any.  They just care about making money, and there's plenty to be made in selling airline tickets and SUVs, as well as refining and selling the fuel to power them. 
But there's no money in intercity rail transit.  That's the biggest reason of all for their antipathy toward it.  Rail needs a steady subsidy to prosper, and conservatives know it.  If Amtrak loses taxpayer funding, it will go out of business.  And it the system collapses, isolated efforts to build modern passenger rail like in California will be adversely impacted as well.  That will really be it.
Amtrak was created in 1971 to help the private railroad companies get out of providing passenger service, which was dying by the early seventies, and Amtrak itself was expected to die off once passenger rail became completely obsolete.  But that never happened.  The oil crises of the 1970s helped renew interest in passenger trains, and Americans who took to riding Amtrak regularly found that they preferred it to other transportation modes for business and even pleasure trips.  This made Amtrak hard for Congress to get rid of, though anti-transit Republicans have tried to get rid of it.  Of course, it would be much easier to get rid of if you simply cut subsidies altogether . . . and forced service to deteriorate.  It looks like the Republican plan is working.  And now that there's been an accident, it will be easier still for Republicans to exploit the issue for advocating Amtrak spending cuts - they argue, as noted, that the railroad doesn't need improvements when the locomotive operator should have been minding his speed, but without admitting that it could have installed positive train control much sooner with adequate funding - and to continue to insist that Democrats are exploiting the crash by asking for more money.
And with Amtrak being  accident-prone, maybe fewer people will use it . . . and make it easier still for Republicans to get rid of it.     
I've long been an advocate for modernized passenger rail in the United States.  One reason I've been a supporter of it is because it affects everyone, not just one racial or ethnic group; after all, there's no white, black, Hispanic, or Asian-American way to run a railroad.  But the way Amtrak is run is no way to run a railroad at all.  And now, I'm ready to give up.  I think it's time to admit that Amtrak's demise is in the very near future.  Republicans control both houses of Congress and are guaranteed House control at least through 2022.  They are excellently positioned to win the White House back in 2016.  And liberals have given up intercity passenger rail as a losing cause and moved on to other losing causes, like universal health care.  As for me, I've had it.  I don't expect high-speed rail to ever run in this country, and I don't even expect regular intercity rail to survive the Republican war on public amenities.  One of the congressmen on the House Appropriations Committee who voted to cut Amtrak funding on May 13 happened to be . . . my congressman.
As far as I'm concerned, both parties and both houses of Congress - and the White House - can't do the right thing and they can't anything right.  American passenger rail will soon be as extinct as the American passenger pigeon.
Forget it, rail-transit advocates - it's over. :-(

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