The recent fatal Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia rekindled debate about the future of rail travel in America. Republicans in Congress want to slash rail funding when they should increase it.
For some people, there is a romantic aesthetic about trains based on their history shaping the nation, but that is not a good reason to spend billions on rail. There are much better ones.
Train travel offers many advantages over cars and planes. It’s cleaner, friendlier to the environment and cost-effective if done right. In addition, when more people ride trains and load more freight onto them, fewer cars and trucks are on the road.
Passenger rail is not suitable for every locale. It works great where there are many people on short to moderate-length trips. It’s not so useful in sparsely populated rural areas. It excels at volume.
Amtrak’s most-heavily-used lines are in the densely populated Northeast corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., but its tracks cross the nation.
From Kansas City, one can buy a ticket to St. Louis, Chicago, Santa Fe, N.M., and beyond. The bargain in the bunch is probably the Chicago route, which costs about $50 each way, when booked in advance, and takes about as long as it does to drive without the highway headaches. Flying — with all the aggravations accompanying air travel today — costs more than twice as much.
The urban-rural passenger split might partly explain conservative hostility toward Amtrak. Urban centers tend to vote Democratic; rural areas that receive less direct benefit from trains tend to vote Republican.
Just hours after the crash in Philadelphia, the GOP-led House Appropriations Committee voted to cut federal Amtrak funding to $1.1 billion, a $251 million reduction. That would continue a years-long decline in funding even as the long-term trend in ridership is upward. The committee also rejected Democrats’ amendment to boost funding for the type of safety system — positive train control — that may well have prevented the latest Amtrak derailment.
Conservatives argue that Amtrak should operate more like a private business and without taxpayer subsidies.
If lawmakers truly want Amtrak to run like a business, they would lift mandates that require it to operate non-profitable routes, many in rural areas. For example, the Kansas City-Chicago route is part of the money-losing Southwest Chief route that links Chicago and Los Angeles. That said, we would rather argue for ways to save that route as part of a modernized, high-speed system.
One GOP congressman likened Amtrak to a “Soviet-style operation.” Would he say the same about the nation’s roads and highways? The federal government — not to mention state and local governments — subsidizes roads far more than they do rail. User fees, like the ludicrously low gas tax, fall far short of covering the direct and indirect costs of cars and trucks. Extending pavement to rural areas is expensive.
Other industrialized nations recognize and embrace rail’s potential. They build tracks for modern, high-speed trains. America, because it has not invested as wisely, lacks similar infrastructure to move people and goods.
Government has always funded core transportation infrastructure, and rail travel is a cornerstone of a modern multimodal system. The sooner America recognizes that and invests accordingly, the sooner it can catch up with the rest of the world and prepare for the future.