Thursday, June 01, 2006

Passenger Rail Helped/Hurt by High Fuel Prices?

"With fuel prices headed for the stratosphere, fuel-efficient passenger-rail service makes more sense today than ever before."

With these words, a May 4, 2006, editorial in the Patriot-News sums up something we have been trying to push to the forefront since starting this blog.

Simply stated: It is insanity to remove Passenger Rail from the list of choices for personal transport when economic and political forces not under our control can remove any or all choices from that list.

It is bad enough that political forces, foreign and domestic, threaten all modes of transport. Add rising fuel costs and the potential for shortages to the mix, and you have a recipe for disaster. Why remove the most fuel efficient choice from the list?

So you would think that high fuel prices would help Passenger Rail, wouldn't you? Not necessarily. Part of the reason is the way our government allocates money for subsidies. A budget is approved in advance of a fiscal year and locked in place after that. Political expediency aside, the amount of money Amtrak has available next fiscal year will not change, even if fuel prices grow by more than anticipated. As Amtrak comes, hat-in-hand, begging for more money to buy fuel, Amtrak stokes the arguments against it's continuance. Particularly those arguments that say that Amtrak is a failure because it needs bigger subsidies every year.

Part of the reason why high fuel prices do not help Passenger Rail is that the establishment media start off on the obligatory implication that there are fuel shortages. (Current high fuel prices really have nothing to do with fuel shortages and more actually to do with the same energy traders that have done an admirable job of bringing down Enron.) The general slowdown in elective travel hurts Amtrak and makes it even harder to increase the bottom line. People won't travel because they think costs will be up everywhere.

Another part of the reason why high fuel prices won't help Amtrak is that Amtrak is not in a position to conserve fuel any more than it already does. There is no flexibility in the system and little opportunity to add seats and increase the number of passenger-miles per gallon. Amtrak could certainly do a little advertising of its fuel efficient, fixed-guideway mode. But it cannot advertise that when fuel is short and public panic is high, Amtrak makes changes that conserve more fuel. Amtrak can't conserve more fuel than it already does.

In fairness, we think that high fuel prices will help commuter rail. Most commuter rail agencies are operated and funded by people who have more foresight and less political inertia than the dunderheads inside the Beltway. Already highly efficient and highly flexible, commuter railroads will probably see an increase in ridership and corresponding farebox revenues. Whether that will offset extreme fuel price rises remains to be seen.

Is Passsenger Rail helped or hurt? Depends.

(Please read our sister blog The Railroad.)

© 2006 - C. A. Turek -
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