Don’t Railroad Amtrak
At root, conservatism is about preserving good things from the past and, where they have been lost, restoring them. Conservatives know that life in the past was in many ways better than life at present; morals and manners both come to mind. So, as some of us are old enough to remember, was travel.
The word “travel” itself suggests a better time and better experiences getting from one place to another than those we now suffer. Travel, where the journey itself is part of the pleasure, has been displaced by “transportation.” Like so many bandboxes or birdcages, people too are now packages and shipped. Whether crammed into an airline seat designed for garden gnomes, your baggage thoroughly (or not) searched in case you are a terrorist, or stuck in heavy traffic behind the wheel of a car, enjoying the journey is not in the script. Your highest hope is to get through it quickly and safely and forget about it as soon as possible.
Yet strange to say, some Americans do still travel, and enjoy it. Who are these privileged souls? Not the 1 percent, but anyone who is traveling by train. Last year, they numbered just over 30 million, counting only passengers on Amtrak, not commuter trains.
Passenger trains offer comfortable travel the middle class can afford. On long-distance trains, most of which use Amtrak’s double-decker Superliner cars, a reasonable coach fare gets you a better seat than domestic flights offer in first class. You have a big window and interesting things to see from it. You can look out, read, work, or nap, all with plenty of room. You can get up and walk around, including to a lounge car with wraparound glass and, for now, to the dining car for a meal with real food. The train can be social if you want it to be; it is easy to meet people. If your trip is overnight, for a somewhat steeper fare, though usually less than first class by air, you can get a private room with a bed at night and a comfortable chair or sofa during the day.
These trains represent one of the good things from the past conservatives should work to conserve and expand: at present, passenger rail service in most of the country is a fraction of what it was 50 years ago. All of which makes it passing strange that congressional Republicans are doing their utmost to kill Amtrak. Each year, they cut its budget further. They starve it of capital funds it needs to buy new cars so it can carry more people. Last year, House Republicans forced through a measure that drove a knife in Amtrak’s back. They put a legal requirement on Amtrak to end all losses on food and beverage services.
Even in the glory days of rail travel, dining cars lost money. Railroads provided diners anyway, and took pride in the excellence of the food served on their trains, because when people are traveling for a day or more they need real meals.
The only way Amtrak can meet the new mandate is to eliminate dining cars. Passengers would have to go on journeys of a thousand miles or more with nothing but a snack bar. Coach passengers may do that, but a great many sleeping car passengers will not. Amtrak makes a lot more money from sleeping cars than from coaches: by its own calculations, sleeping car passengers account for just 15 percent of long-distance passengers but contribute 36 percent of total revenue. Amtrak’s average yield per mile for coach passengers is 14.2 cents; for sleeping car passengers, 27.2 cents. As Jim Loomison wrote in a Consumer Traveler story last year: “Here’s the unvarnished truth, put in the simplest possible terms by a respected authority on passenger rail: ‘If the dining cars go, the sleepers go. If the sleepers go, the big revenue goes. If the big revenue goes, Amtrak goes’.”
Yes, Amtrak is subsidized. So are all competing forms of transportation. Highways cover only 51 percent of their costs from all user fees, including the gas tax. The rest is paid by subsidies of one form or another, especially from local property taxes. Airlines receive massive subsidies in the form of airports and the air traffic control system. The day after 9/11, the airlines ran to Capitol Hill and were immediately given billions of dollars in additional taxpayer money, no questions asked.
Amtrak currently covers 75 percent of its costs from passenger fares, not counting payments from states and commuter authorities. Including both ticket revenue and ancillary payments, Amtrak covered 93 percent of its expenses in 2014. And again, sleeping car patrons on long distance trains, a particular target of House Republicans, contribute over a third of Amtrak’s total long-distance revenue.
Arguments that we should keep the Northeast Corridor—which serves cities like Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston—but eliminate the rest of Amtrak’s network fail both financially and politically. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor trains do make an operating profit. But because Amtrak owns most of the corridor, it bears an enormous expense for its maintenance and operation. Amtrak’s long-distance trains by contrast run on private railroads’ tracks, with little direct cost to Amtrak. Politically, if you kill everyone else’s trains, why should senators and congressmen from outside the Northeast Corridor vote money for Amtrak? If the Republicans kill Amtrak, they kill all of Amtrak, including the Northeast Corridor.
As to Amtrak’s trains running empty, the opposite is the case. Amtrak could carry more passengers than it does if it had the equipment, which Congress refuses it the money to buy. On many long-distance trains, sleeping-car space is sold out months in advance. Since Amtrak’s founding in 1971, its ridership has grown from 6 million to 30.9 million in 2014. All across the country, more and more Americans are finding the train is a better way to travel, and they want more trains to ride. Passenger rail is a growing business. Usually, Republicans want to encourage business growth. In this case, they are going to kill it.
If congressional Republicans would replace their irrational loathing for passenger trains with an approach based on facts and reason, they could help both the taxpayer and the people who want to ride trains. Amtrak, like most businesses that have monopolies, could use some competition. The railroads will fight bitterly against letting other passenger-train operators besides Amtrak run over their tracks because they fear that would lead to “open access” for competing freight-train operators as well. But a few years ago, when an old colleague of ours, the late Paul Weyrich, served on a high-level commission examining the future of transportation, several railroad presidents told him privately that if they could bid for part of Amtrak’s subsidy, they would consider again running their own passenger trains. Were Congress to pass legislation opening the door to this possibility, we might get, on at least some long-distance routes, trains that were run well and on time for less cost.
In fact, in Florida a railroad, the Florida East Coast (FEC), is planning to introduce its own passenger trains between Miami, Palm Beach, and Orlando, trains it expects will make money. FEC has pioneered new practices in railroading for many decades, usually with success. If this one works, the return of passenger trains operated by private railroads would receive a major boost.
Another private company that owns a number of short-line railroads, Iowa Pacific Holdings, is bringing back one of the glories of the railway age, the Pullman Company. Once a week, restored Pullman cars run between Chicago and New Orleans, attached to Amtrak’s “City of New Orleans” route. Trains magazine reports:
It could almost be an evening in 1956. Streamlined passenger cars, handsomely attired in the chocolate and orange livery of the Illinois Central Railroad, their windows glowing invitingly, stand beside a platform at a great Chicago terminal. White-jacketed men wait at lowered vestibule steps, ready to direct passengers to their assigned space and to lift their luggage aboard.
Sound a bit different from what you go through trying to get on an airplane?
Again we come face-to-face with what conservatism is all about: conserving and restoring good things from our shared past. As Trains notes, “At its 1920s peak, Pullman carried 39 million people per year to every corner of the country. Its hallmark was quality comfort for the traveling public, delivered consistently, at reasonable prices. It was not about opulent luxury for a wealthy, junketing few.”
What is the Republican Party in Congress about? Whom do the Republicans represent and serve? The middle class, who enjoy traveling by train and can afford to do so—or just the 1 percent, people who travel by private jet and write large checks as campaign contributions?
Ultimately, the Republican Party’s efforts in Congress to deny Americans the choice of travel by rail come down to two different visions of America. The first is a vision of the America we once had and conservatives still want, an overwhelmingly middle-class country with lots of nice things available at prices the middle class can afford. The other is an America where the 1 percent lounge in Neronian splendor while the middle class sinks into poverty, where everything they can afford is unpleasant. With its efforts to destroy Amtrak, the Republican Congress casts a vote for the latter.
William S. Lind is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. Glen Bottoms is the center’s executive director.