AMTRAK, Off Track

Story and Photos by Jeremy Miller

How a look overseas, and within, could help the US's ailing passenger rail service.

Even in three-dollar-a-gallon era America, there is little love for trains. Since the early days of westward expansion and the construction of the Great Iron Way, the train has fallen by the wayside in the American imagination, and in the American way of life.

Last April, the pride of the ragged U.S. rail system, the Acela, was pulled off-line after cracks were found in the brake discs of several of its 20 trains. The high-speed fleet, which provides service between Boston, New York and Washington, has been under constant scrutiny ever since. Last week, Amtrak’s board fired president David Gunn after his three-year effort to bolster the Northeast corridor and to pull the troubled service from the brink of bankruptcy. Members on Amtrak’s board who pushed for Gunn’s removal, as well as President Bush, believe that Amtrak would work best as a federal/state venture with an eventual move toward privatization.

For years, it’s been the same story: Amtrak forages on thin subsidies, struggling for legitimacy, while its critics circle like buzzards overhead.

They bring a list of charges. The Bush administration says that for too long Amtrak has been allowed to run a money-losing monopoly over the nation’s rails and wants to cut funding entirely. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby says that the per-mile subsidies for its current ridership is exorbitant—nearly 30 times the amount received by the airlines and 50 times that received for buses. Airline lobbyists say that in our fast paced society, no one has time to take a slow train across a vast continent. In a fit of free-market dogma last April (and in spite of the chaos that followed the privatization of Britain’s national passenger rail service), The Economist enumerated the reasons to “kill off Amtrak” and advocated—surprise!—privatization of U.S. passenger rails.

In some ways, blaming Amtrak—an agency that has suffered years of anemic budgets, bad management, political double-talk and poor planning—for its inability to provide a viable national rail system is like blaming Mongolia for not winning the space race: it simply lacks the financial resources, political clout and public support to do the job right.

Let’s look for a moment at a system that has evolved in a very different climate: the French national high-speed rail system, known as TGV. In 1981, TGV’s first train line, which linked Paris and Lyon, was introduced. Eight years later, a second line was completed, connecting cities southwest of Paris. With dedicated tracks and trains that could reach speeds of 168mph, TGV carried 24 million people—nearly as many passengers on all routes in the United States last year—on just two lines. When France unveiled its “Supertrain” in the mid-80s, moving passengers between Paris and Lyon at speeds approaching 200mph, ridership on that line skyrocketed to 10 million passengers in 10 months. TGV has also succeeded in an area often seen as the Achilles heel of rail service: travel distances over 500 miles. According to the BBC, the TGV Sud Est makes the 621-mile journey from Lille in the north to Marseilles in the south—a grueling, 12-hour road-trip known well to French vacationers—in four-and-a-half hours.

In 2003, TGV carried its 1 billionth rider. This milestone marked an era with an average annual ridership of 45 million passengers—a stunning figure considering France’s population of 60 million. Yet, infrastructure improvements are not complete. Over the next 10 years, TGV is slated to build 2000 miles of new high-speed lines at a cost of 30 billion euros. Despite this heavy investment, last year the TGV generated revenues of 5.5 billion euros and the entire French National Rail Service, SNCF, posted a net profit of 323 million euros. The take away message from the French National Rail: build it right, pay to sustain it and people will ride it. Who knows, it may even make a little money

Amtrak has not been so lucky. In its 34-year existence, the government has granted it a paltry $29 billion in subsidies, which its detractors are quick to cite as evidence of its “profligate” ways. Yet this allegedly vast sum is dwarfed by the DOT’s annual interstate highway budget, which last year alone amounted to $34 billion. With this trickle of funds, Amtrak has been left to maintain a fleet of slow, aging trains—trains that share lines with even slower-moving freighters. Even Amtrak’s “flagship” service between Boston and New York has suffered from poor planning and underfunding. Train speeds are limited by sharp curves and federally mandated high weight requirements—which many blame for Acela’s brake disc problems. As history has proven, if Amtrak cannot provide an attractive service on reliable tracks and trains, people will not ride. When riders stop buying tickets, per passenger subsidy figures rise (though overall subsidies remain steady, or even decrease), providing detractors with potent, if skewed, ammunition against Amtrak.

With the strength of automotive and airline lobbies in this country, it is not surprising that Amtrak has had trouble making headway. But perhaps car manufacturers and the airlines have reason to fear the rise of the railway. Air France and other French air carriers learned that the increase in TGV’s Paris-Lyon ridership caused a sharp decline in airline ticket sales between the two cities. But in this era of rising energy costs, air pollution and traffic congestion, improving the nation’s railways is a smart investment.

All analysis aside, talk of building a viable rail system is premature until the U.S. public is willing to stand behind it. Right now, many see it as an urban core/blue state cause celebre. If Amtrak is to work, the public must come to understand that supporting an improved rail system will translate into savings for the individual rider—in terms of gas, maintenance and time. Car drivers must see leaving the SUV in the garage as a smart economic choice and not an altruistic crusade. People must find the will to make the half-mile walk to the train station, to sit beside a stranger for a half-hour journey, to talk to a cashier through bulletproof glass, to relinquish control of the wheel, to make the bold ontological leap into a bygone era of mass transit.

Until that day comes . . . enjoy the traffic.