Sunday, November 23, 2008

Something Big

Since the inception of Amtrak, the model for Passenger Rail in this country has been - with few exceptions - one of subsidize and recover. This means subsidize as much of the train operations budget as is politically possible, and recover as much as possible of the costs of train operations from the farebox. The few exceptions are excursion trains, since even commuter rail is handled in the "subsidize and recover" model.

Perhaps we are ready for a new model. A big idea.

Looking at some photographs of New York Central varnish from the 1930s and 1940s got me thinking: We could look at this the same way banks are required to look at deposit insurance. Banks take a percentage of every dollar and put it into the FDIC.

Think about this: Instead of taking money out of transportation taxes and out of other general taxes to fund Passenger Rail, why don't we just require every railroad to pay a percentage of their profits towards passenger service.

You may say that was how railroads got in trouble with passengers to begin with. And I would say you are right. But railroad of the time were trying to serve every community on most routes and were doing it with lots and lots of equipment and heavy schedules. I think that if the current Amtrak route structure were imposed on the host railroads, a percentage of freight revenues would be enough, in our day, to operate most, if not all of Amtrak, maybe even double the routes currently available. I believe that it would not cramp the style of the profitable railroads.

You may also say this is a bad time to start imposing an effective tax on profitable businesses, as the times are telling us that profitable businesses are going to be few. But what better time than when railroads are flush with cash? Should we wait until the whole economy is in shambles?

If it worked, this would be a way to ease railroads back into the habit of operating and funding passenger service, not just grudgingly allowing passenger trains to operate on tracks built in the public interest.

Yes, there are consequences. Shippers would effectively be paying for passenger rail in rates that might be higher. Congress would have to resist the temptation to allow (or worse, mandate) that all costs thus incurred be passed on to the shippers. And initally, reduced service would result on already crowded lines. Benefits would be forthcoming with patience. Business would benefit from increased availability of travel and lower cost. Removing automobiles from roadways would relieve environmental pressures on all businesses. Fuel savings would be great, and all businesses would benefit from a reduced dependence on foreign oil.

I'm sure I haven't thought of all the positives and negatives here. Anyone want to jump in and enlighten me if you think this is a bad idea? Otherwise, maybe we can write some letters to the new Congress and the new president. Maybe there are other new and better ideas out there. But the old model isn't working, hasn't for a long time. Let's start something big.

© 2008 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Turning Point

Passenger Rail, like a train poised at the switch ready to take one track or the other, will be rolling onto a different track as a result of the events of this month.

First, the pundits say that the administration of President-Elect Obama is likely to be much more pro-Passenger Rail than several of its predecessors. This is based in part on Joe Biden, who is seen as pro-passenger in part based on his voting record, but mostly because he likes to ride the trains himself. It is also based on the undisputable fact that Mr. Obama came up during the campaign as more knowledgeable as to the potential of Passenger Rail in general and HSR in particular.

Today, it appears that Rep. James Oberstar is the likely choice for Secretary of Transportation. Whether this is 'change' or a step forward is arguable. Mr. Oberstar's voting record in the House is to support Amtrak reauthorization, to vote against reductions in funding, but never, as far as my research can find, to take a positive forward move in sponsoring any legislation that would get Amtrak and Passenger Rail over the hump to where it should be in this century.

The next development is the resignation of Alex Kummant as CEO of Amtrak. This writer was thoroughly skeptical about Mr. Kummant when he came on board. I have been pleasantly proven wrong. But he also had the luck of the draw, with Amtrak ridership increasing as a result of high fuel prices, giving him extra revenue to work with. Now that gas prices are falling, will ridership stay at this level?

My guess is that Mr. Kummant has trained his executive team well, and the interim CEO William Crosbie will carry on some of the same policies. Also my guess: President-Elect Obama will likely appoint a new CEO from outside Amtrak.

That's not a bad thing. In the spirit of change that the recent election is supposed to have fostered, I am hoping that whoever it is will agree with Secretary-in-waiting Oberstar and with the new Congress on the direction Amtrak should take. I think we would all have to agree that the only 'change' that would be good for Amtrak and good for the country is increased funding for train frequency, equipment, on-time performance, service, and new routes - without the redundancy of Congress repeating over and over, year after long year, that it thinks Amtrak should make money.

Mr. Oberstar - if you are appointed as expected - and Mr. Obama . . . the train is running on your track now. Please don't derail it at the switch.

©2008 - C. A. Turek -