Responding to Ronald Utt, Part II

Here’s more of my letter to the Business and Media Institute.  Scroll down to read the first part in yesterday’s blog entry.

Perhaps Mr. Utt’s most egregiously erroneous assertions is the following:

Amtrak’s subsidies [are] “over the top” …taxpayers foot on average $400 for each passenger aboard the Sunset Limited rail line servicing California, while other popular rail services get subsidies averaging “hundreds per passenger.” Since long-distance rail is significantly slower and less convenient than an airline flight, Utt added, taxpayers are essentially paying for someone’s vacation when it comes to most long-distance train trips.

First, the standard measure for passenger service is passenger-miles (one passenger carried one mile), not merely passengers.  Second, the federal cost per passenger-mile for passengers on long distance trains such as the Sunset Limited is very close to the passenger-mile cost for riders on corridor trains.

Specifically regarding the Sunset Limited:

The route of the Sunset Limited – from Los Angeles to New Orleans via Tucson, El Paso, San Antonio and Houston—traverses one of the fastest growing parts of this nation. Market logic would produce at least daily service throughout the route with multiple daily service on many portions of it. Yet the Sunset Limited operates only three days per week over extremely congested tracks owned by the Union Pacific Railroad.  Despite its limited service frequency, the Sunset Limited exchanges hundreds of passengers annually with other Amtrak trains at Los Angeles, San Antonio and New Orleans.  When (prior to Hurricane Katrina) the Sunset operated all the way to Orlando, Florida, Sunset Limited passengers also connected to and from other trains at Jacksonville, Florida.

The overwhelming majority of passengers traveling on the Sunset Limited (and other long distance train) do not ride the route from end to end. Train passengers more typically travel between small towns along the train routes, or between large cities and these small towns.  Airlines or even intercity buses rarely serve the latter towns.

Amtrak’s admittedly substantial debt has not increased in over 4 ½ years; it has in fact fallen by more than $400 million in that period. Most of Amtrak’s debt can be traced directly to the failure of US policy makers to firmly decide what they want Amtrak to be and to do.

Federal law continues to mandate a National System of intercity rail passenger service. That law also mandates preservation and improvement of service in the Boston-Washington Northeast Corridor. But federal lawmakers have never provided more comprehensive direction regarding the type, level and scope of the mandated national service. Nor have either Congress or any president called upon Amtrak or any federal agency to draft a more comprehensive rail passenger service policy framework. (The Amtrak Reform Council was an ideologically driven farce that produced little that was constructive and nothing that was enacted.) On those very rare occasions when Amtrak management has attempted to offer such ideas, Congress has paid little attention during its usually highly distracted process of passing Amtrak’s portion of the federal budget.

This nation needs a truly national system of intercity rail passenger service, providing a dense network of daytime and overnight trains serving all major travel markets. Such a rail service network could replace many short-distance air services, reduce highway congestion and reduce national air pollution. Achievement of such a network is greatly inhibited by misdirected, factually flawed criticisms such as Mr. Utt’s.

—Howard Harding
NARP Board Member, Akron, Ohio

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