Micro to Macro

Posted by John Hankey
on Saturday, May 19, 2018

            Thanks so much for your comments. They have been fascinating. Allow me to mix a little Micro with a little more Macro—and a few cautions.

            Amtrak’s existence is not now, and never has been, truly safe, stable, and assured. It is a unique and fragile national institution premised on financial and political fictions. At this point it may be like American Democracy itself—deeply flawed and based on certain kinds of hypocrisy, but vastly superior to any feasible alternative.

            It is healthy and urgent to have a robust conversation about Amtrak’s present state and possible futures, and I am delighted to stir the pot in some useful way. Hopefully, these  conversations would help Amtrak be better and strengthen its position vis a vis Congress, the States, and a vision for a national network of passenger trains as part of an integrated and interconnected public transportation network.

            I apologize if that sounds like wonky jargon, but there is a lot of common sense thinking and experience behind it. And it exposes yet more micro issues that speak to the kinds of macro issues that Fred brings up.

           We walk a fine line. Collectively, we need to support Amtrak. We can critique it. But we cannot abandon it.

            There are many interests who would be delighted to see Amtrak go away. We could begin with Class Is, for whom Amtrak is a relatively minor source of revenue and a major pain in the tail. I don’t think there is a major freight railroad that wouldn’t be delighted to see Amtrak evaporate. Never underestimate their ability to argue that Amtrak is a burden on private enterprise and should be euthanized.

            The very same Southwest Airlines that some of you referenced (and that I fly more than 25 times a year) historically has taken the position that Amtrak subsidies should be eliminated for a level playing field. For many years it was a vocal adversary. I suspect the rest of the airline industry simply doesn’t care.

            One could argue that coordination and alliances between airlines like Southwest and bus lines like Greyhound and Trailways might have revolutionized Long Distance public transportation in the United States over the past half century. But that is a different issue, and never came to pass.

            Amtrak has survived partly because, like military bases and defense contractors, it has a footprint in many political districts. I don’t believe Amtrak has fully taken advantage of that.

            It has also survived because, in the context of Washington (this is an observation, not a criticism), the naked $500 million or so annual subsidy is both a bargain for the results it produces, and a mere rounding error for many Pentagon and entitlement programs. Keep in mind that Michigan State University just agreed to a $500 million settlement to victims of one rogue sports medicine doctor that it didn't seem capable of adequately supervising. Amtrak's subsidy--even at a billion dollars per year--is not that much money for what it delivers.

            Here is where I am going to veer into Fred’s Macro lane with a few thoughts, and maybe a conclusion.

  --       We don’t know with any accuracy (and probably never could know) the true size or degree of hidden subsidies to automobile and bus transportation, airline transportation, and other forms of non-rail public transportation. It is the same for freight transportation.

            It is a classic “Apples-to-Oysters” comparison.

            But it is a useful point to keep in mind. Throughout history, all forms of American transportation received direct or hidden subsidies according to all sorts of then-current conditions. Perhaps our efforts ought to be in the direction of “Amtrak is a bargain to the nation—you would be astonished at how much we spend supporting other modes of transportation.”

--         Over time, we might better understand Amtrak as an integral part of a national strategy to provide transportation alternatives. I have heard that argument since the late 1960s. But what if we took it seriously? And actually acted on that cliché?

            There are many hundreds of places in the United States where Amtrak is, or could be,  the only realistic public transportation option. Maybe LD trains ought to make more stops rather than fewer.

            This is just a thought: Could Amtrak play some small role in unifying the country? As in, better physically connecting seemingly isolated rural communities with urban centers? That was an important 19th Century idea. Could it have some usefulness in the 21st Century?

            Amtrak is a national system with wildly varying expectations, and I suspect little real enthusiasm for understanding the facts on the ground out in the boonies. The shameful and frustrating treatment of the Gulf state communities following the suspension of service east from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina is a case in point.

            If ever there were an opportunity to envision—and roll out—a new and different approach to regional connectivity, that was it. It was what historians call a “hinge moment”—a convergence of opportunities, circumstances, and timing when things either did, or could have, turned out differently. Amtrak blew it.

  --       This may be my most ominous observation. If Amtrak’s Long Distance network goes away or is surgically severed into disconnected smaller service areas, we will never get it—or anything resembling a true national network—back.

            In 1910, it was possible to travel from Annapolis, the capital of Maryland, to Washington on an electric interurban train almost every hour of every day. The trip took a little over an hour, was at reasonable cost, and was fast, comfortable, reliable, and safe.

            Twenty five years later (in 1935, as Maryland and the nation were deeply into the automobile and highway craze), the Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis Railroad was still providing that service, but in precarious financial condition. It requested something of a tax break from the Maryland State Legislature to remain in business.

            Being typical narrow-minded, self-interested, short-sighted politicians (Maryland had a long history of producing a particular kind of Southern specimen), the legislature declined to work with the railroad. Within days, the Cleveland syndicate that owned the WB&A halted service, then scrapped the railroad. It was, after all, the middle of the Great Depression.

            Six years later, the U.S. entered WW II. After that came a regional economic boom, and had it survived, the WB&A would have been an incredibly useful asset to the development of the region.

           Today, aside from a few subsidized commuter buses each morning and afternoon, there is no reasonable public transport option between Annapolis and Washington—40 miles distant, and in one of the most highly developed regions in the world.

            That is how distorted and grotesque our transportation policy and public transportation network has become.

            I mention that to suggest that however vexing currant Amtrak travel might be, it is a resource we cannot afford to lose. If the pin-headed Old South Maryland legislators had worked with the Cleveland syndicate and found a way to preserve the WB&A as a functioning transit system, things would look very much different in my part of the world today. Not only different, but I suspect much better.

            We can repeat that story across the United States. What would Los Angeles be like today if the Pacific Electric had been able to hold on for another ten or fifteen years? Or if Amtrak had been placed on a better footing from the start—without the political hypocrisy and unrealistic expectations?

            In fairness, keep in mind that we didn’t even have a unified cabinet-level Department of Transportation until 1967. In 1971, Amtrak was a Hail Mary play in a game still being invented.


            My recommendation? Let’s be careful in our opinions about Amtrak.

            Amtrak deserves responsible critique. It can, and should, be better than it is, and think differently about who it serves and how it does so. It is a kind of public service and national institution—not just another Class I railroad. Congress needs to understand that, or at least leave Amtrak alone.

            I like to think that is the kind of discussion that unfolds within a community of interest, and that we are part of that community. The National Association of Railroad Passengers is on the front line and deserves our support.

            In today’s hyper-partisan climate, sharks quickly smell blood in the water. One opportunistic D.C. type could climb aboard a hobby horse with dire consequences for Amtrak as we know it.

            If it seems that general support for Amtrak is waning even among those who might be its natural supporters, sooner or later Amtrak opponents will go in for the kill. Please recall one of my original observations—Amtrak is small beans in D.C., and fragile. There are interests that would gut the LD network and privatize the potentially juicy bits in a heartbeat. Great Britain has shown the way.

            I don’t agree with many of the ways Amtrak does things, and they certainly don’t ask my opinions. But this is the national passenger train network we have, and our very last chance to hang on to one. We aren’t partners, but we shouldn’t be adversaries. The fact that Amtrak is approaching its 50th Anniversary is somewhat astonishing.

           There may be hope. This conversation will continue.


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