Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Long Distance Runaround

You'd think that, since Donald Trump wants to rebuild the nation's infrastructure, he'd make a commitment to building up and modernizing Amtrak.  Actually, he seems set on destroying it.
The proposed budget cuts affecting Amtrak's Gateway rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York under the Hudson River - a project Trump backer and New Jersey governor Chris Christie supports - have gotten the most attention, but generally overlooked by the mainstream media (which relies on airline commercials) is the proposed elimination of Amtrak's long-distance trains, like the Empire Builder from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, shown below.
Amtrak doesn't get a lot of ridership on its long-distance lines.  The national passenger railroad uses its profits from the more lucrative Northeast Corridor to fund the long-distance routes.  The Trump administration says it wants to end subsidies for these long-distance lines so that Amtrak can "focus on better managing its state-supported and Northeast Corridor train services."  Nice rhetoric, but to do so would undermine the idea of a national passenger rail service and also likely undermine support for any passenger rail.
"Amtrak operates 15 long-distance trains across the nation, and these routes offer the only Amtrak service in 23 of the 46 states we serve," Wick Moorman, Amtrak's president an chief executive officer, said in a statement. "These trains connect our major regions, provide vital transportation to residents in rural communities and generate connecting passengers and revenue for our Northeast Corridor and state-supported services.  Amtrak is very focused on running efficiently - we covered 94 percent of our total network operating costs through ticket sales and other revenues in [fiscal year] 2016 - but these services all require federal investment."
Former Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi was anathema to liberals, but he supported Amtrak, and I, for one, was grateful for his support.  But he also made it clear that legislators outside the Northeast wouldn't support a system that benefited only the eight states on the Northeast Corridor line - "No national system, no Northeast Corridor," he said.  He had a point, and the point could be made for the other fifteen states with Amtrak service that includes trains other than long-distance ones.  We in these 23 states can't count on lawmakers from the other 27 states, especially those from states that don't even have Amtrak service (like South Dakota or Wyoming), to support Amtrak if it doesn't benefit the whole country.  It's not called Netrak or Caltrak, it's called Amtrak - "Am" for America.  Take a look at Amtrak's route map; the problem isn't that there are too many long-distance train routes, there are too few!      
Good grief, Idaho only has Amtrak service in the tip of its panhandle.  The population centers in the southern part of the state are completely shut out.
I can't help but wonder if Trump's Amtrak spending proposal is just a Trojan horse to get rid of the system altogether.  Trump is a businessman who wants to run America like a business, and any businessman knows that passenger trains make little if any profit, so I am highly skeptical of his intentions.  It could be very well be that passenger intercity trains will soon be as extinct as passenger pigeons, at least in this country.  Apart from Americans who live in towns with commuter rail service - I am not one of them - the only time any of us will get to ride a train is if we travel abroad (yeah, right!) or go on a tourist train using cars and engines only slightly older than most of Amtrak's fleet.

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