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Wall Street Journal's "Acela Pundits" attacked Amtrak, so we responded

April 13, 2017

The Wall Street Journal has added their two cents to the debate sparked by the recent troubles radiating from New York Penn Station, and it is a classic in the genre of “tone-deaf New York City editors ridiculing investment in small town America.” It’s a genre in which the Journal has, rightly, earned a reputation as an industry leader.

Though not an innovator, since the editorial compliantly echoes the White House’s budget proposal’s attack on rail infrastructure, calling for an end to investment in the national network. So yet again, America’s rail passengers find themselves confronted with another version of the same, tired accusation: “We should get rid of Amtrak’s money-losing long distance trains; they don’t cover their costs, don’t serve anyone, or go anywhere useful.”

(I’ll include a link, albeit regretfully. I’d encourage you not to give them any more traffic… unless you’re already a subscriber and you plan on lighting them up in the comments section. We cover the main parts of the argument below.)

Since time is a flat circle, we’re forced yet again to take the time to inject the same old facts into the same old debate:

  • “The bigger problem is these long-distance train routes are consuming hundreds of millions of dollars each year that would be better spent improving service along the Northeast Corridor where the potential exists to support profitable high-speed rail.” The most pernicious myth deployed by the Journal editors is, strangely, the easiest to debunk: Amtrak requires federal subsidies; and roads, bridges, and airports don’t; ergo, roads are good and trains are bad. In matter of fact, not only do highways not cover their costs, they are quite literally hemorrhaging taxpayer money. The Highway Trust Fund has required enormous general fund contributions totaling $141 billion since 2008, and the Congressional Budget Office projects that the trust fund’s cumulative deficits will grow from $21 billion in fiscal year 2022, to $108 billion by fiscal year 2026. While this trend has worsened in recent years—due in no small part to a gas tax that has remained frozen in time since the year 1993, the last time Congress mustered the political will to raise it—it is not a new trend. A report issued by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in 2011 found that, since 1947, the amount of money spent on highways, roads and streets has exceeded the amount raised through gasoline taxes and other so-called “user fees” by $600 billion (in 2005 dollars). And in fact, highway “user fees” pay only about half the cost of building and maintaining the nation’s network of highways, roads, and streets, which are subsidized by a mix of sales taxes, property taxes, and general funds.
  • “Most commuter and light-rail trains including New Jersey Transit and Washington, D.C.’s Metro (which is known to catch on fire) aren’t paragons of safety…” Ok, it turns out THIS argument is the easiest to debunk. Commuter rail is 18 times safer than travel by passenger car. And it’s not even close: the most recent safety and census data shows there were 40,200 motor-vehicle deaths in the U.S. in 2016, a six percent increase over 2015. The average American has a 1 in 100 lifetime risk of dying in a car accident. If just one percent of the nation’s approximately three trillion annual vehicle miles traveled by motor vehicle was shifted to intercity passenger or commuter train, almost 200 lives would be saved each year. The Journal doesn’t even get the trend right; while the growing maintenance backlog on U.S. transit has certainly led to deterioration in service quality, passenger rail has actually been getting safer over the past decade. There has been a 33 percent decline in derailments over the last 10 years, even as passenger ridership has increased and freight volumes have been steady. Railroads have experienced a 31 percent reduction in accident rate since 2006, while seeing a 23 percent Increase in Intercity and Commuter Rail Services over the past 10 years.
  • “Someone who pays $176 to take a 62-hour ride on the Texas Eagle train from Los Angeles to Dallas to Chicago must really want to minimize Christmas with the in-laws.” This is actually an understandable mistake for the Journal editors, since I assume most of them are “that one uncle” who ruins Thanksgiving for the rest of the family. But they’re wrong here, too. Over 61 percent of Texas Eagle passengers take trips under 300 miles, and only 2.5 percent travel further than 2,000 miles. The route covers 2,728 miles in total, and that distance is only important because it’s what allows the train to connect 42 cities across 7 states—many of them rural communities and small towns. If you live in Temple, Texas and you’re trying to get to Fort Worth for business or a medical procedure, the Eagle is as important to you as the Northeast Corridor is to Wall Street Journal editors—probably more important, since Temple doesn’t have access to a LaGuardia or JFK.

The broader arguments pivot on a more philosophical question: who do you believe is important, and which towns matter? We know that, of the 31 million-plus passengers that Amtrak carries in a given year, 19 million of them won’t step foot on a Northeast Corridor train. Do those 19 million people matter to the WSJ? Are they worthy of the investment taxpayer dollars?

Of course, if you’re from small town and rural America, this question might not strike you as academic. If you’re from one of the 225 towns that would lose all intercity rail service if the long distance trains ceased to run, you might take offense at the notion that your town wasn’t worth the work it took to maintain the connection to the wider world; that your train wasn’t worth the public investment.

The last year has taught us the cost of the disconnection we’ve allowed to grow in our nation. And in the 2016 postmortem, the “Acela set”—the media pundits whose view of America is largely defined by the Washington, D.C. – New York City segment of the Northeast Corridor—took a lot of heat for its inability to understand what was happening in the rest of the U.S. The problem is not Amtrak’s Acela, of course, but the people who ride it. If the Wall Street Journal editors took the time to ride a train outside the corridors of power, they would see value of these trains—and the costs that the policies of disinvestment and abandonment they’re advancing have exacted on the rest of us.

The gap between big city and small, rural and urban, has grown too large. Let’s not turn our backs on any more Americans. It’s time to rebuild a Connected America.

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Special thanks to OneRail, a rail industry coalition—of which NARP is a member—that created the safety report from which we drew most of the safety data in this post.

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