I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about how the economy is going to change Amtrak. Will it be for better or for worse, and what can we who love passenger trains do to make it better? I don't think there's any question that Amtrak will change, as it has for as long as there has been an Amtrak.
In my humble opinion, the economy is not going to get radically better for the next year. It may not get radically worse, but I see nothing on the horizon that spells boom times. So two things are a sure bet for Amtrak: 1. There will be less federal funding. 2. There will be higher fares for everyone.
Let's take number 2 first, because it's a good thing, as old jailbird Martha Stewart used to say. Higher fares without an increase in incremental costs; i.e., same old schedule, no increase in frequency, but Amtrak charges the traveler more to get from Point A to Point B; means Amtrak gets closer to being profitable. However, it also means that Passenger Rail, in general, gets closer to being profitable. Enter private enterprise. Say what you will about the capitalist system. As much as the current regime in Washington would like to regulate big business out of existence, trends in investment are coming back strong in favor of rail - both freight and passenger. If the transportation-consuming public gets used to paying more to ride the rails, the same way it got used to paying over $3 per gallon of gas, then watch out for more investment in privately operated Passenger Rail. As I said, "A good thing!"
On to number 1. In the humble opinion of this rail fanatic, Amtrak, at this point in it's federally-funded life, may not survive a drastic cut in federal funds. Even in a gradually increasing economy, the states that would have to pick up the bulk of the shortfall in federal funding to keep many - if not all - services are cash-strapped and have other agendas. Being politically conservative my self, I've never understood the incredible shortsightedness of politicians who ignore the enormous public benefits of comprehensive transportation policy that includes all modes. Both ends and the middle of the political spectrum seem to be self-destructive in their zeal to show constituencies their so-called principled approach to government. Hogwash! Common sense and historical perspective tell us that Passenger Rail was never the real albatross around the neck of railroad private enterprise, but government intransigence was!
Would the demise of Amtrak be desirable? In short: A resounding NO! There's not a railroad out there that is prepared to take over the route structure and offer the level of service - such as it is - that is today's Amtrak. (A tip of the New Years hat to all of Amtrak's dedicated employees!) Once it's gone, it's going to be that much harder to get something back, in any form. Better for the politicians to recognize Amtrak's value as part of a comprehensive transportation policy that may include fares covering ever more of costs until such time as Amtrak becomes another Conrail. It won't happen, you say? Why not? There was a time not so long ago that I wrote in this blog that Passenger Rail would never be profitable. I don't see it that way any more.
Disclaimer: I write this on 12/31/2012, and the Fiscal Cliff - who I sometimes imagine as some myopic accountant living in a 3-story walk-up in Queens - has yet to be addressed. I don't think any deal that happens after I post this will change what I have written above.
Happy New Year!
© 2012 - C. A. Turek - firstname.lastname@example.org