The Starvation Of Amtrak

In the wake of the Philadelphia Amtrak crash, my Zocalo co-panelist Tom Zoellner pens a Washington Post op-ed bemoaning the sorry state of Amtrak, due to federal policy:

So don’t blame Amtrak for the mess. Blame history and the law. If Americans really want anything more from their passenger trains besides a future of lumbering banality — besmirched by a few dozen derailments and a handful of passengers killed each year — the 1970 law must be amended to guarantee a healthy level of federal support, clearly prioritize passenger trains over freights, take posturing by Congress out of the equation, double-down on advertising and capturing new customers and lay down dedicated tracks outside the Northeast Corridor. The current Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2015 doles out what amounts to more starvation rations: a paltry $7 billion over the next four years, which means nothing is going to change. Amtrak needs to stop becoming a symbol of American incompetence and start leading the way in an era of fuel shortages and highway congestion.

He compares rail in the United States to rail in Europe:

Americans who vacation in Europe are frequently struck by the professionalism, convenience and reach of the continent’s rail network and ask a very good question: Why can’t we do that here? How can a nation whose industrial power was built by the railroads be left with a starving system that might embarrass former Soviet bloc countries?

The one big difference Tom doesn’t note though is that European cities are much closer together than many U.S. cities, outside of the northeast corridor of course. Given the vast size of this country, passenger rail has a hard time competing with airplanes for many trips. Rail is best suited to cities that are too close to fly but too far away to drive conveniently.

But Tom’s larger point is correct: you get what you pay for. And in the case of Amtrak, regardless of the cause of this accident, prioritizing freight over passengers and starving the train budget means we’re not getting enough.


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