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Amtrak: Profit or die

Editorial for March 7

Amtrak: Profit or die

With sniping from many sides, the year 2002 may turn out to be the last year that Amtrak, the nation's rail passenger system, will exist as a viable nationwide carrier.

Last month, Amtrak President George Warrington listed 18 cross-country passenger routes that Amtrak expects to eliminate this October, unless Congress can come up with sufficient funding to pay for needed equipment and track upgrading.

On the cut list is The Empire Builder, the daily east-west train that runs through the Columbia River Gorge. The train runs between Portland and Chicago, with stops in Bingen and Wishram. Ride it this year. It might be your last chance.

Amtrak was formed in 1971 to allow the nation's private railroads to concentrate on their core business -- moving freight. Since that time, Amtrak has certainly seen its share of problems. But the bottom line is, ridership has been increasing steadily over recent years.

In the year 2000, 22.5 million people rode Amtrak's rails in the United States. Every day, an average of 61,000 people get on an Amtrak train and go somewhere.

Is that a system that ought to be discarded, or is it a valuable public service that ought to be much more reasonably supported?

It's a shame, but clearly, adequate support for rail passenger service has never been a priority with the U.S. Congress or with recent inhabitants of the White House.

Last week, for example, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) suggested "franchising" Amtrak's passenger rail routes to private companies. Sounds good, but once the Amtrak "blueprint" is thrown out, trying to restart a system would be all but impossible. Deals would have to be made to operate on freight railroad lines, liability questions would have to be addressed, attorneys would be in their element, and progress would be molasses-slow.

The key anti-Amtrak argument is, most passenger trains aren't making a profit, therefore Amtrak must have no inherent value. That's nonsense, of course, but that is the thinking that holds sway in Washington, D.C.

Most people don't stop to consider that airlines receive billions in federal subsidies every year. Would airlines make a profit if they had to pay to build and maintain airports and terminals?

Here are some facts: In 2001, the federal government spent $12 billion for airports and airline subsidies. That does not include the $5 billion to $15 billion bailout handed to privately-owned airline companies after Sept. 11.

The federal government, in addition, spent $33 billion on highways. Do highways make a profit? Of course not.

Conversely, the nation's rail passenger network was given $521 million, and told to make a profit or else.

That doesn't seem very fair. Highways and air transport are handed billions in federal support every year, while Amtrak alone is judged on whether it can start making a profit.

That's a mean joke.

As citizens of the Columbia River Gorge, we may be about to lose the only train that serves our area. Those who realize what a tragedy this would be are advised to contact U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, and U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, before it's too late.



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