That Misguided Attack on Passenger Rail by Jim Mathews

The Washington Post’s May 3 editorial attacking America’s long-distance train service is both misguided and mean-spirited, proceeding from a false economic premise and concluding by writing off tens of millions of Americans who don’t live in cities like the Post’s own D.C. headquarters.

The editorial pointed to “losses” on longer routes and the supposed superiority of the Northeast Corridor’s financials to justify gutting the nation’s interstate passenger rail system, trotting out the same tired talking points anti-rail interests have used for decades to club passenger rail – a thriving mode all over the world, in countries both large and small.

Trouble is, the headline “losses” number is misleading due to Amtrak’s accounting policies. The Rail Passengers Association strongly believes that the debate over the future of U.S. passenger rail been distorted by Amtrak’s use of fully allocated costs rather than avoidable costs as required by statute. Using fully allocated costs creates the widespread and incorrect perception that Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is financially self-sufficient and that Amtrak’s need for taxpayer funding results entirely from its operation of passenger trains in the rest of the nation. We produced a white paper detailing this problem and distributed it to key members of Congress. You can read a summary here, or review the entire white paper here.

And in any case the focus on losses ignores the reality that all travel modes are subsidized, from airlines enjoying the world’s safest air-traffic control system courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer to buses and trucks battering a highway system only half-paid for by gas taxes. The Post misses the point when it demands profits from routes like the California Zephyr or Southwest Chief. We’ve yet to see the Post demand that rural highways turn a profit, or for that matter look in its own backyard and demand that the Metro subway system operate in the black on fares alone. That would be a foolish. Like highways and public transit, Amtrak exists to create a larger public good.

Congress appropriates taxpayer dollars every year to Amtrak because it’s a vital and cost-effective tool of economic development. Last year our study on proposed bus-substitution on the Chief’s route showed that in just the three affected states alone the plan would impose economic losses of some $180 million each year. That’s more than three times the cost of operating the entire ten-state route. Similarly, this winter we found that proposed additional service between Chicago and the Twin Cities could generate a return-on-investment of better than seven-to-one.

Passenger trains make money by generating jobs, retail, mobility, tourism and real-estate development. The communities served get the “profit” rather than Amtrak, and that’s okay. We taxpayers and our congressional representatives support Amtrak in part because we want these towns to thrive and their citizens to have access to jobs and mobility.

As a government-supported enterprise, Amtrak exists to serve not just growing communities, but as much of America as possible where it is not otherwise profitable to do so. And that includes places like Normal, Ill., Meridian, Miss., Minot, N.D., and Cut Bank, Mt. Let’s face it, if it were profitable to serve Cut Bank, BNSF would be falling all over itself to file with the Federal Railroad Administration to launch twice-daily service through the Hi-Line. Obviously, that’s not happening, and that’s precisely why for decades American citizens – acting through their elected representatives in Congress – have continued to support having an Amtrak to operate that service.

Just under 20% of Americans live in rural America, around 62 million people. A quarter of them are veterans, and another quarter are seniors over 65. In fact, about a quarter of all of America’s seniors live in rural areas. Many of these folks are those who can’t fly or drive, either because of physical disabilities or poor access to travel options. In Flyover Country, 1.6 million people have no car and no access to public transit, shutting them off from life’s necessities, from jobs, education and healthcare. Often they need to travel great distances to VA hospitals or other centers for care unavailable in their hometowns. As baby-boomers age, the senior population will only grow larger.

The Post does a disservice when it dismisses the real and growing needs of veterans, seniors and the disabled in towns across America as “special pleading.” Assuring economic opportunity and access to mobility for the entire country is a federal responsibility as old as the postal roads in the U.S. Constitution. That Amtrak can do this while covering better than 90% of its costs at the farebox is a testament to good stewardship of dollars that promote economic growth in towns across the America.

Our job as advocates is to shout that message as loud as we can, wherever we can, whenever we can, in every town that we can. Not to ourselves, but to our Mayors, our local elected legislators, and to our local newspapers and TV stations. I’ve already written to the Post to let them know I think they’re dead wrong. Let them and everyone else know what you think too!


*Jim Mathews is the CEO/President of Rail Passengers Association 

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