Extreme Nausea

Posted by David Lester
on Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Apparently, there is a lot of nausea in Washington, D.C. these days.  The former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation recently told Congress that it made him “mildly nauseous” to think that his actions may have impacted the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  A longtime confidante of Donald Trump said last week that the president bowing to the King of Saudi Arabia made him “want to puke.”   After reading reports about and sections of the president’s budget for fiscal year 2018, I’m extremely nauseated myself.  Mine stems from the absurd cuts to rail passenger service funding, for both Amtrak and public transit.

There have been many news reports in the past couple of days, including two great reports on Trains NewsWire, providing details of budget cuts slated for Amtrak and transit, so I won’t belabor them here.  However, grants to Amtrak being cut by 45%, from 1.4 billion to $774 million is particularly sickening.  Personally, I am a supporter of Amtrak - the Northeast Corridor, the national network, and the distinctive service along the California coast.  However, it has been extremely frustrating to see the agency struggle with budget appropriations every year since it was founded in May 1971.  One slightly brighter note from the budget is that it calls for $1.5 billion to be invested in the Northeast Corridor, but considering age and state of repair of much of the NEC infrastructure, is this enough?  And, funds for the redevelopment of Penn Station in New York have been hammered by a 64 percent cut.

I’ve often wondered if it would be better to scrap the Amtrak national network than to humiliate it with paltry funding that barely keeps it rolling.  Then, even though Amtrak long-distance service is not perfect, and some have had bad experiences on the train, I think of the many enjoyable long-distance trips I’ve enjoyed, and the dedication to hard work and customer service exhibited by the majority of on-board train crews.  And, trying to get a last-minute reservation for sleeping car space on the long-distance trains is next to impossible, so they appear to be well patronized.

Cuts to transit programs are also ridiculous.  As reported in yesterday’s NewsWire report, although the Federal Transit Administration’s budget has “only” dropped from $11.8 billion to $11.2 billion, the big challenge is that the FTA’s Capital Investment Grant program for new starts has been scrapped, and the budget has been cut by 43 percent, so only programs that the transportation department is legally required to support through full-funding grant agreements will be funded.

Other passenger rail cuts are in the budget, but I think the point has been made.  One quote in the budget about Amtrak cuts was particularly ill informed:  long-distance trains are said to be “a vestige of when train service was the only viable transcontinental transportation option.  Today, communities are served by an expansive aviation, interstate highway, and intercity bus network.”  Bull.  Rider analysis and research into the operation of long-distance Amtrak service will reveal that nostalgia or enthusiasm for trains are not the key drivers for patronage of this service. The “expansive air service” to some communities consists of aircraft that put a lump in your throat just to look at them.  Most people do not find long-distance bus travel to be very pleasant, and driving a car long distances is not an option for many people. 

Several years ago, I had a flight between two sizeable cities for which only two prop planes were available.  One had just landed, but experienced some type of trouble during the landing.  The other plane, which was on the ground, had a mechanical issue being worked on.  While waiting to board, our air crew was on the runway doing “touch and goes” to see if the one that had recently landed had been repaired sufficiently to make the trip.  At the end of all this, the pilot announced to the passengers “the first officer and I believe that the plane is airworthy, and shouldn’t give us any problems on our flight.”   That was certainly comforting.  It was good to hear that the plane was airworthy.  Some people walked off the plane.  I was apprehensive, but stayed aboard for what was, thankfully, an uneventful one-hour flight.  And, I won’t even go into how often flights from smaller communities to larger ones are canceled for some reason – the reason is usually “mechanical problems,” but one wonders if it’s because not enough passengers purchased tickets for the given flight.  So much for “expansive” air service.

We can only hope that a lot of these cuts will not survive scrutiny by Congress in the coming weeks.  For a presidential candidate who promoted big infrastructure investments, this initial budget is an affront to the rail passenger industry.  We will see what happens.  Meanwhile, keep your buckets handy.   


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