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Brake trouble fuels larger debate over Amtrak

Problems with high-speed Acela trains underline fight over whether railway should be privatized or funded better federally.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 22, 2005


With Amtrak's flagship Acela service sidelined until at least the summer, attention is now being focused on the long-term future of the nation's struggling passenger rail service.

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President Bush wants to do away completely with the company's $1.2 billion federal subsidy, breaking up and privatizing Amtrak, which would shift responsibility for rail service to the states. Amtrak's advocates say that the railroad continues to struggle precisely because Washington has never invested enough in it. They say that breaking up the company now would only doom passenger rail in the country - not a wise move with gas prices spiraling and the aviation system in crisis.

And therein lies the crux of the debate under way on Capitol Hill: Is passenger train service a national necessity that should be subsidized to ensure its survival as the nation does for its highways and aviation systems, and as the majority of the world does for its rail services? Or should passenger rail in the United States be a private, profitmaking business that is self-sustaining?

Amtrak's advocates note that there are only a few passenger rail lines in Japan and New Zealand that actually make money. Even India, which boasts about its railroads, subsidizes its system to the tune of $3.4 billion annually, almost three times as much as Washington underwrites Amtrak.

But privatization advocates argue that Amtrak is actually hamstrung by its congressional funding, which has earned the necessary votes only by requiring the railroad to keep long, unprofitable routes running to far-flung Western states. These advocates contend that shifting responsibility to the states would spur investment in the routes that are profitable, ending the politically inspired unprofitable ones. They say this, in turn, could create a stronger rail system - albeit one that may not be national in scope.

"It is correct for the Bush administration to put pressure on Congress and Amtrak to come up with a better answer. If we're going to spend a billion dollars a year, we want something for it," says Robert Gallamore, director of the Northwestern University Transportation Center in Evanston, Ill. "At the same time, my friends tell me that I'm crazy to think that state compacts could ever be successful. If the local city council can't get together to agree on how to build a local library, how likely is that that several states will be able to agree on [how to pay for a rail line?]"

At a hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday, Amtrak released its own strategic vision for the future. Key to its success, according to David Laney, chairman of Amtrak's board, is creating a federal-state match for improving rail service, very similar to the kind of matching grants that have helped keep the nation's highways and airports in good repair. Its ideal would be 80 percent federal, and 20 percent state. The theory is that this will spur states to invest in improving their own rail infrastructures.

The line that needs the most attention currently, according to Mr. Laney, is the Northeast Corridor, which now generates much of Amtrak's revenues. The tracks are in such poor repair that even when the high-speed Acela trains were running, it couldn't reach its top speed of 150 miles per hour.