Jul 1 2002

The Railroading of Amtrak

Trains, planes and automobiles held to different standards

Coverage of Amtrak contains two surprises: the details reported about the 31-year-old railroad, and the details that aren’t reported about its competition.

Despite the introduction of successful high-speed trains in the Northeast, as well as increased ridership both before and after September 11’s airborne attacks, coverage of Amtrak is surprisingly negative. “You don’t read much in the way of good news,” says Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP). Instead, typical reporting singles out Amtrak for criticism and glosses over the advantages enjoyed by rail’s competitors.

Most coverage focuses on the rail network’s financial situation. “Amtrak is in disarray,” reported USA Today (5/2/02). “The nation’s passenger railroad faces a projected $1.1 billion deficit this fiscal year–its biggest ever.” The Associated Press (4/12/02) reported that Amtrak is “a chronic money-loser for the government.” The Arizona Daily Star (4/18/02) editorialized that Congress “should relegate Amtrak to the dustbin of failed efforts to overturn the law of supply and demand.”

The implication that Amtrak is exceptional in the transportation industry in its reliance on government subsidies, however, is troublesome–and ironic, given the recent well-publicized bailout for U.S. airlines. On top of $13 billion in federal aviation spending for fiscal year 2002, Congress approved a $15 billion package of airline aid within two weeks of September 11. Intercity passenger rail, by comparison, received half a billion in federal funds for the current fiscal year, and Amtrak is asking for $1.2 billion in the next to avoid service cuts.

Subsidies for automotive transport also dwarf support for “federally subsidized” Amtrak (Reuters, 4/10/02). The Worldwatch Institute, in a paper on “The Global Rail Revival” (4/94), pointed out:

Although government support of rail is necessary–since passenger fares seldom cover the full cost of train service–this subsidy pales in comparison to the hidden costs of road travel. For example, in the United States, few people realize that direct taxes on automobiles and gasoline barely cover two thirds of the cost of road building, maintenance, administration and safety.

Additional social costs of car and air travel–including accidents, lost time, and loss of quality of life–are obvious to planners and economists, and are increasingly counted as a real drag on the economy. The social costs of car travel in 11 countries studied is nearly twice that of air travel and seven times that of trains.

Stephen Goddard, in his 1994 book Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century, found that hidden subsidies for drivers amount to well over $2 for every gallon of gasoline sold.

A double standard

The NARP’s Capon says “a tremendous double standard” is at work. Government support for Amtrak is deemed a “subsidy,” while spending on aviation and highways is thought of as “investment” and decoupled from a need to break even. “They never talk about the money-losing highway system,” says Capon.

One reason is that it’s easy to see the costs of rail “on a single balance sheet,” Capon says. Subsidies for highway travel in particular come from a wider array of local, state and government agencies.

The aviation and highway industries are also powerful lobbies. As the New York Times reported (10/10/01), lobbyists for the airline industry were instrumental in winning quick passage of last year’s airline aid package.

Another missing element in Amtrak coverage is international context. Successful railroads in other countries get much greater levels of government support. Canada has passenger-rail service that is “flush with a new infusion of federal government funding, new locomotives and rolling stock, improved railbed infrastructure and burgeoning ridership” (Windsor Star, 4/15/02). According to figures from the European Conference of Ministers of Transport, Germany spends 22 percent of its total transportation capital spending on rail, while France spends 21 percent. The United States spends 0.4 percent.

The real issue in most coverage of Amtrak is not whether the railroad pays its own way. Instead, it’s whether rail receives a share of government support that is appropriate to its advantages over other forms of transportation and the options that rail provides. The most important things that journalists covering Amtrak can do, according to Capon, is “not be seduced by talk about how we can have the trains without paying for them.”

Christopher Ott’s work on rail issues has appeared in publications including Salon.com, E: The Environmental Magazine and the Baltimore Sun.