February 20, 2005


Amtrak's Own Board Sows Alarm About System's Future: Passenger-rail supporters fumed as the Bush administration talked of eliminating aid for Amtrak. (MATTHEW L. WALD, 2/20/05, NY Times)

As Amtrak's supporters in Congress seek to renew the federal subsidy for the railroad despite President Bush's plan to eliminate federal aid, the railroad faces a new challenge: the ambivalence of its own board of directors.

The board, whose four members were appointed by President Bush, missed a Feb. 15 deadline to submit a budget request to Congress. Two days later, the chairman, David M. Laney, sent a letter to Congress saying that the board plans to make a grant request, but that "the status quo at Amtrak is neither viable nor acceptable."

The board said it was developing legislative proposals that "would provide the foundation needed for the development of U.S. passenger rail service, whether or not Amtrak remains its chief steward."

The letter, combined with the language the Bush administration used to introduce its budget for the fiscal year starting in October, is raising alarm among Amtrak's supporters.

The best way to aid Amtrak is to steeply hike gas taxes and airline fees.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 20, 2005 9:44 AM

Make the long-distance routes that are in large part to blame for the losses self-supported by the states they travel through. That way, either much of the deficit problem goes away, or those long-distance lines disappear, and Amtrak and put their funds into areas where the riders are actually located.

Alternatively, hold out and keep those long-distance routes going at least until UP and BNSF get their massive twin-track project completed through the heart of the country, which would make the long-distance trains more competitive on schedule times. The huge increases in rail freight shipments over the past 20 years means that on single track lines, an Amtrak train can be cruising along at 80 mph passing the cars on the nearby Interstate for a while, and then gets stopped on a siding for 35 minutes while three or four mile-long freight trains head the other way. Guarenteed to drive customers to cars, buses or airplanes.

Posted by: John at February 20, 2005 10:34 AM

I prefer my car to a plane (when feasible); a plane to a train; a train to a bus; a buss to a bus - but that's just me.

Posted by: Oswald Booth Czolgosz at February 20, 2005 10:43 AM


Yes, we can change that via taxation.

Posted by: oj at February 20, 2005 10:54 AM

Mr. Judd;

I suspect that the taxation you're talking about would lead to the preference of "not traveling" over Amtrack. For instance, we've taken the train to visit my parents. It was so incredibly inconvenient that if we couldn't afford it by car or plane we just wouldn't go, even if the train were free.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 20, 2005 11:15 AM

Of course, those who believe in markets would day that train service would improve. However, I'm not averse to folk traveling less.

Posted by: oj at February 20, 2005 11:21 AM

OJ: Other than general preference for anachronism, why do you think that passenger train travel has any advantage over other modes?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 20, 2005 11:32 AM

In times of terrorism, I think decentralized travel (i.e. cars, and to some extent buses) for passengers make more sense from a security standpoint than centralized travel like trains (and to some extent airplanes). I'm surprised the terrorists have yet to hit the high speed european trains which carry as many as 2,000 passengers at once. A well placed set of explosives kills all of them, almost matching 9/11 in terms of destructiveness.

Posted by: Bret at February 20, 2005 12:40 PM


OJ hates freedom.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at February 20, 2005 12:47 PM

Actually, they should sell the profitable routes and hold onto the non-profitable routes, taxing the profitable routes to pay for the non-profitable.

Anerican train travel is a useless, odoriferous anachronism.

Posted by: Bart at February 20, 2005 1:32 PM

Except that every car is a potential bomb.

Posted by: oj at February 20, 2005 2:14 PM

Freedom is a means, not an end.

Posted by: oj at February 20, 2005 2:23 PM

"Except that every car is a potential bomb."

I am not sure that that you have identified a worthwhile starting point for transportaion infrastucture planning.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 20, 2005 2:36 PM

1) Except for the East Coast Main Line, AMTRAK is a token money sink--little more than a sop to railroad buffs. Service is so limited, times are so inconvenient, that the train is almost never a practicval travel alternative.

2) Then too, there is the spiritual component. Someone who undertands what is wrong with the collectivized art in Central Park should be able to understand how the automobile affirms individualism. The driver partakes of angelic agility: one transports oneself by an act of mind and will.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 20, 2005 5:27 PM


Cars are anti-social.

Posted by: oj at February 20, 2005 6:20 PM

The simple reality is that the way we live, in dispersed single-family and low density housing with dispersed commercial areas, is not conducive to public transport as it now exists. Any attempt to encourage public transport must begin with the acceptance and accomodation of that reality.

Posted by: Bart at February 20, 2005 6:24 PM

My trip on the Empire Builder from St. Paul to Chicago cost $68 (including lunch in the Lounge Car) and took 6 hours (at 85mph) in a seat better than air 1st class, and dropped me off at Union Station right in the Loop.

My trip on Northwest cost $120, and required arriving 2 hours prior for checkin, then waited 45 min to take off, then squeezed me in the cattle section for 2 hours (including 30 min circling for landing) w/peanuts for lunch, and then I waited another hour in O'Hare to disembark and get bags, and another 1.5 hours for the El train to downtown.

Advantage: Amtrak

Posted by: Gideon at February 20, 2005 9:49 PM

Come on, OJ: Every train is an even bigger potential bomb.

Posted by: Seven Machos at February 21, 2005 1:21 AM


Posted by: oj at February 21, 2005 1:26 AM

Cars tend to offer equality to the poor. It will always be cheaper to drive than to go by train.

Orrin is just another East Coast elitist.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at February 21, 2005 5:39 PM


Ever live in a city? damn few of the poor have cars. Lots ride buses and trains.

Posted by: oj at February 21, 2005 5:43 PM

OJ: Ever been to Madrid?

Posted by: Seven Machos at February 21, 2005 6:10 PM


Not if you mean Spain. It's outside the country.

Posted by: oj at February 21, 2005 6:14 PM

Amtrak doesn't offer intracity transport, so what the poor do in cities is irrelevant.

But the poor can borrow cars, and do.

Try to borrow a train.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at February 23, 2005 4:28 PM

There is a big difference between Amtrak and the MTA - totally different functions.

The biggest threat (with bombs) is from tanker trucks. Maybe not in Manhattan or D.C., but certainly in other cities. And the chlorine car that killed 9 people in rural SC a few weeks ago probably attracted the attention of some unsavory characters.

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 23, 2005 4:48 PM