How Amtrak Can Save Itself

Billions for flight, but not one cent for rail?

Poor Amtrak can’t get any respect. Its dependence on public subsidies for years made it a target of deficit-minded politicians and commentators. Now that the deficit is in (temporary) abeyance, Amtrak’s still on the chopping block. The Amtrak Reform Council, a panel formed in 1997 by the Senate, has issued a resolution calling for Amtrak to be restructured or, possibly, liquidated. In a Nov. 14 letter to President Bush, panel chairman Gilbert E. Carmichael said that there were

major inherent flaws and weaknesses in Amtrak’s institutional design.  Amtrak simply cannot conceive and implement the improvements that are needed in intercity rail passenger service in the United States.

Not even the post-9/11 spike in ridership has made Amtrak financially viable, according to the council’s backup report. Ridership for the entire month of September, the council says, was still 6.4 percent lower than in September 2000. (What about October? A press release issued by Amtrak in response to the council resolution doesn’t say.) Although the likelihood that Congress would allow the Bush administration to eliminate Amtrak is pretty remote, clearly Amtrak is going to have to beg for every penny it gets out of next year’s budget.

Chatterbox holds no particular brief for Amtrak. But it does strike him as unfair that Amtrak’s operating subsidy of $521 million should come under attack at the same time that the federal government is shoveling $5 billion outright and $10 billion in possible loan guarantees to the U.S. airline industry in response to 9/11. To get this bailout, the airlines had scarcely to raise a finger. Interestingly, before the era of flight, railroads were often referred to as “air lines.” (Click here, for example, to read up on the Chicago-New York Electric Air Line Railroad.) This suggests the obvious solution to Amtrak’s plight: It should declare itself an airline, put its feet up, and watch the federal dollars roll in.