July 12, 2002

Amtrak can't do the job

Amtrak sucks. Anyone who genuinely likes rail, and moreover, likes getting somewhere more or less has to agree. Sure, long distance rail travel is a charming way to see the country, but it is certainly not a practical way to go from place to place, at least not with the current system. America needs a workable system of passenger rail. Amtrak is simply not up to the task.

The very fact of the matter is that passenger rail no longer makes money. That's why private corporations, unsubsidized, and unprotected by the government, have left the business a long time ago. Airplanes were simply too cheap, and too fast. Even the much celebrated Acela train in the Northeast corridor would not be able to turn a profit once the cost of maintaining the rail is factored in.

One of the reasons air travel has become so inexpensive is the much maligned hub and spoke system adopted by the major airlines. The problem, of course, is that hub and spoke is much more time consuming, not to mention much more susceptible to delays due to the weather. Door to door times for trips of less than 400 miles, except to or from major hub airports, are now shorter if one simply drives. Since railroad stations are in the very heart of the cities they serve, there is a plausible case to be made that, although time spent on a train would be more than time spent on a plane, at least in shorter distance trips, door to door times would decrease. In the aftermath of September 11th, the new security restrictions will only make air travel more expensive and more time consuming. Which makes a perfect case for expanded rail travel.

In addition, safety would almost certainly be better on a train than on a plane. Although a terrorist may be able to successfully hijack a passenger train, and perhaps derail it, the kind of damage that could be achieved would have nowhere the spectacular results of flying an

airplane into a building. Structurally, no matter how hard a train were to hit a skyscraper, the impact is still on the ground, where the structure of the building is much stronger than on the uppermost floors. Beyond that, there would not be nearly the amount of fuel on board that would start the kind of massive fires that an airplane full of jet fuel would.

Although this would tragic for all those on board, a terrorist organization would have all the less incentive to perpetrate such an attack. Terrorists are, after all, rational actors who expect certain results from certain actions. Suicide terrorists simply value their lives, and the lives of those they would kill, lower than their objectives. Improving conditions so that they would value their lives more highly is just one way to go about it. Another way is to lower their expected return. If the expected result of a terrorist attack is the complete destruction of America's ability and will to make war, or export Big Macs, the response would be tremendous. If the expected result was an hour delay from Chicago to New York, there would be fewer would-be suicide bombers.

Amtrak, however, is in no position to take advantage of this. The truth of the matter is that it is a government love child, serving every congressman and his brother's district, not so much with passenger service, but rather with pork barrel spending and jobs. Thus, Amtrak is almost guaranteed of its own survival, but because it will always survive, it has no need to improve.

Any rail system that would attract passengers would need to be faster, safer, and more reliable than the current Amtrak system is. That means massive subsidies. Of course, any talk of a government subsidy would raise the ire of the very same congressmen that are so well served by a nonfunctional railroad system, but that's just how the system works.

The fact of the matter is that the interstate highway system, as well as air travel to certain less accessible airports, is subsidized by the government. It would be extremely hypocritical for someone to be against subsidies for transportation to be in favor of these programs.

America needs a passenger rail system, and Amtrak just isn't up to the task. It's time for something new.