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October 23, 2005

"Breaking Up Amtrak"

When American forces burned villages in Vietnam, their excuse for those acts was “we had to destroy it to save it.” It seems the Bush administration is using the same tactic in rescuing Amtrak.

Weeks after their September meeting, it leaked out that the Bush-appointees to the Amtrak Board of Directors had secretly voted to spin-off the Northeast corridor, the railroad’s most heavily ridden and least subsidized (but still unprofitable) rail operation. The plan is that the line between Washington DC and Boston would be run by a consortium of eight states and Federal government.

If approved by the states, that would leave the rest of Amtrak’s national operation to wither and die, cut off from a subsidy of federal dollars and the revenue of the NE Corridor (NEC).

Here’s why their plan makes no sense.

1) Amtrak is a national railroad. To survive, all of its routes must continue as they feed passengers into each other, serving the entire nation. Transportation is a vital utility. We don’t allow a power company to only wire densely populated, profitable areas, so why cut off 42 other states from rail service?

2) We in Connecticut can’t afford to subsidize the Northeast Corridor. We can barely afford to run Metro-North let alone be burdened with the longest section of tracks between Washington and Boston.

3) Ours is the worst section of the NEC. We have the oldest overhead power wires, the worst bridges and some of the most congested tracks. Even in good condition, high speed tracks in the NEC cost $300,000+ per mile to maintain each year. If the Fed’s dump this infrastructure burden on us, how will we pay for it?

4) What will the Amtrak Board do if we don’t agree? Will they just run their trains through our state without stopping, make us the equivalent of “fly-over country”? What will that mean to the economies of Stamford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Old Saybrook, New London and Hartford… the cities now served by Amtrak? How will they be affected if Connecticut loses Amtrak service?

5) If the plan is improved, who’ll be in charge? How will the competing interests of states like Connecticut and New Jersey, both seeking access to scarce track-space in New York City, be decided?

6) For a clue to the risks of such a break-up scheme, look to Great Britain. A decade ago when they broke up their railroads into separate infrastructure (tracks, bridges and signals) and operating companies (trains), it was a disaster! Service got worse and safety deteriorated.

It’s been long known that the Republicans have little love for Amtrak and would prefer to see it dead. But with annual ridership now up to 25 million passengers and on-time performance of 89%, the railroad is turning the corner. Acela is back and so are the passengers.

Our Federal government is spending $5+ billion a month in Iraq, but they can’t seem to justify the $1.18 billion annual subsidy for our national railroad. Why?
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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see http://www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com/

1 comment:

- CT Rider said...

Dear Jim,

Obviously, you believe that the best way to maintain useful rail travel is via federal subsidy. Others disagree. I think I am in disagreement with you, but haven't made up my mind. I care deeply about intercity rail travel, not only because it is itself an interesting thing, but also because I use it on a weekly basis as the best means of travel for my needs. I think this means that I would be a prime target of your comments, as I assume your aim is to persuade others that your idea is correct. Naturally, this process is properly functioning democracy.
I am also a Republican, though I am not quite sure why party affiliation has a direct effect on the best way to run a railroad. Your comments about Republicans not caring about the railroads or words to that effect is factually incorrect and shallow. While you presented arguements as to why you think such a spinoff plan is a bad idea, your partisan comments go a long way to throw suspicion on them. Tell me why the plan is a bad idea, if that's what you believe, and leave out telling me what I do or don't care about.