Friday, March 25, 2005

Funding and The Great Lie - Part 5 - Consequences

There's no business like show business, and railroading. Passenger railroading has always been a little bit of both. This fact is particularly true of long distance passenger railroading since the Great Depression and of commuter railroading after 1950. In future articles, I would like to demonstrate how "doing a little sidestep" is a dance peculiar to passenger railroading. However, in the blogs just preceding this one, we have brought the reader to the point in time where federal funding for Amtrak is completely gone and where the system has shut down, with the probable exception of some areas of the country where the service is more vital to the smooth flow of daily transport. We took a one-blog time out to bring you some up-to-date news on funding to which nobody paid any attention. (Come on, folks! Blog me!)

There is little to no proof that the transportation system of the United States would suffer any great or even noticeable handicap with the loss of Amtrak. There is no proof that it wouldn't, either. It is all statistics and speculation. On the one hand, passengers trains have been withdrawn from many, many areas of the country in the past 50 years, and those areas are doing just fine. Or are they?

On the other hand, many areas where passenger trains have been withdrawn now have them, either in a locally subsidized or commuter form. And more are going to get them. There are areas where there is a recognition of some of the things I am going to say below. A not-so-perfect example is Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they are going to have a train from Belen (45 miles south) to Bernalillo (10 miles north), and eventually to Santa Fe (now about 60 road miles north). There used to be Santa Fe service on this same route from El Paso, Texas, on the south, to Santa Fe. The local governments are starting to realize the price paid in highway costs, pollution, lost productivity, and restricted development, by the absence of the passenger train.

There have always been consequences for the withdrawal of rail service. Highway costs and vehicle pollution are just the most obvious. Small towns withered and passengers chose the private passenger automobile. Trucking has grown beyond the capacity of the Interstate Highway System (another government subsidy for transportation), and the growth of trucking was in part spurred by the withdrawal of passenger rail before and during Amtrak enhanced by business decisions made by Amtrak on what they could and could not carry on a passenger train.

How? Passenger trains used to carry the mails. This was an extremely efficient deal for the post office, but it was part of a losing proposition for the railroads that, pre-Amtrak, wanted to lose the passenger train that - I have said this before - NEVER MADE MONEY, EVER! The mails went to truck, the trucks got sloppy with service, UPS and Fed Ex came in and took up the slack. More trucks. Amtrak tried and failed to make money on carrying the mails again, putting even more trucks on the roads and on dedicated intermodal trains that currently clog the remaining freight railroads.

Consequence: If you get on an Interstate in your SUV, even in the most remote part of the country, you have to deal with heavy trucks. More of them every year, and no end in sight. The buses have to deal with them, too. With no Amtrak, your only other alternative is to take off your shoes and get in line at the airport security check.

Incidental to all this, the airlines are just about where the railroads were with passenger rail just before Amtrak. They can't make money at it. But unlike the railroads, they have already used up their subsidy from the government. The airports, terminals, airway system, control towers, and regional traffic control centers. They are all federal government owned and operated. Cry for the airlines, as they have found that the only thing they can do is reduce service and drive the customers away, or onto the highways. I do not think we can build, or afford to build, highways fast enough, or to maintain them.

Consequence: For the sake of argument, let's say there is a day in the future when we are all out on the road bucking the truckers and the airways are full of money-losing airplanes and the buses are tootling along the roadways that are left in condition to take them with their busloads of passengers who can't drive and won't fly, and with their toilets overflowing. We suffer a national disaster at that moment.

It is not unfair to argue that any disaster half of September 11, 2001, or beyond would result in the grounding of commercial passenger fights.

Let me then ask this question: How does one get from, say, Las Vegas, New Mexico, to Buffalo, New York? (Both cities are on Amtrak routes now.)

Next time: The Start of The Dance

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