Passenger Rail: A New Conservative Position

Passenger rail, Amtrak in particular, has been a conservative whipping boy for decades. This point of view needs serious re-examination, because national transportation strategy is an issue of US national competitiveness, and passenger rail has a significant role to play.

In short, the US has no transportation strategy, while the fragile air transportation network, decaying roads and bridges, crushing highway congestion, and wobbly urban transit systems only add cost and dysfunction to an already struggling economy. A major federal government role in building and maintaining significant national assets that make the country competitive is entirely consistent with conservative philosophy.

The 250-year economic miracle of the United States has been enabled, in no small part, by the unparalleled transportation capability first found and then built on this continent. It began with the remarkable St. Lawrence Seaway and the harbor-rich East Coast, without which the coastal colony system and its robust trade would have developed very differently. This was followed by the western expansion powered first by the Ohio River system and then by the Mississippi and Missouri river systems. Technical development linked with geography (river banks and plains) then drove the railroad economy, followed by highway and air, always in the international vanguard. Today we falter, as we idle in traffic on the way to the local home building supply store, and have little or no transportation advantage over other nations and geographies.

In the passenger transportation world, conservatives have lost their way with the libertarian mantra of "let the free market work," as though this absolves them of wrestling with the real details of real problems. Witness the chaos of the commercial airlines in the last 25 years, the 150-year boom-bust history of the railroads, and the gradual unwinding of major elements of the troubled British rail privatization.

There is something different about large-scale networks, their construction, and their maintenance. Another network example, outside of transportation, is the national power grid, which is a mess. Imagine trying to crunch a discounted cash flow justification, as a business analyst in one of our modern corporations, of a little project like the 100-year-old tunnels under the Hudson River, without which the East Coast couldn't function today. You would be laughed out of your first big-boss review meeting, because modern economic analysis can't recognize value past about 25 years.

Few realize that on a per-passenger basis, Amtrak has had less capital input than auto transportation nationally. All of the original equipment was made up of cast-off fleets from the commercial railroads -- much of the operation barely had a chance with poorly supported routes and aging railcars. Imagine what a huge Eisenhower-like build out, the hardly liberal highway program of the 1950's and 1960's, would have done for passenger rail at any point in the last 30 years. Any systems analyst will tell you that initial conditions make all the difference in the outcome of complex system performance -- serious early capital input would have changed everything for passenger rail in this country.

And for all the ubiquitous Amtrak bashing from the right, today the Northeast Corridor has captured over 60% of the combined air/rail market between New York and Washington, while gaining over 45% share of the Boston to New York corridor. The overall passenger transportation lane between San Diego and LA could not function today without Amtrak, at times rivaling the Northeast Corridor in total passengers, for short periods of time. And all of the demands for system profitability, historically made by Republicans, are nonsense -- the Amtrak network as a whole actually generates revenue relative to costs quite comparable to most other international passenger rail systems, and its overhead costs are some of the lowest in the passenger rail world, not something one would ever hear from the right. And the international passenger rail systems that claim profitability do so without including infrastructure maintenance costs, which is a political shell game set off two decades ago by the attempt to effectively privatize British Rail.

It is time to ask what has gone right with passenger rail, rather than just to dwell on what has gone wrong. William F. Buckley had some wonderful words that can be applied to conservative views on transportation issues.

"Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great."

With enormous stimulus funds flowing to transportation infrastructure and with 30% of the nation's energy spending driven by transportation, it is time that the Department of Transportation be appropriately organized and be held responsible for a genuine national transportation strategy. The DOT organization still exists in silos by modes -- the air people don't talk to the rail people; the rail people don't talk to the highway people, etc. There isn't even a passenger transportation model that can evaluate a key lane, say, DC to New York, and create a balanced air-rail-highway view.

There is much to be done. Too many airports still support massive airline travel, to their detriment, in 100- to 200-mile hops that should be rail-based. Major freight railroad lanes have capacity and could be used for 110 mph passenger rail travel -- several lanes between major Midwestern cities could be expanded for less than $1 billion each, a drop in the bucket relative to highway construction costs. 

Financing and dedicated funding approaches need to be developed and politically progressed. A national pooled approach for equipment procurement needs to be developed, combining transit and inter-city passenger rail needs. A national approach to decaying passenger train stations needs to be developed. The list goes on.

While a tremendous amount of thoughtful work needs to be done, philosophically this is not difficult. We know where the passengers are; we don't need free market magic to tell us this. We also know where existing rail beds, mountain passes, riverbanks, remaining open urban corridors, bridges, appropriate grades, remaining tunnel opportunities, bumper-to-bumper highways, jammed-up airports, and all the other current transportation congestion points are, regardless of mode.

It is entirely appropriate for the federal government to create a detailed national passenger transportation plan and then to work with local, state, federal, and private sector entities to realize the proposed networks.

Conservatives should make this issue theirs. There are, no doubt, large political pitfalls with earmarks and bridges-to- nowhere, but that can always be an excuse to do nothing. The current approach of the right, basically ignoring the national competitiveness implications of transportation and the related energy issues, is an abdication of responsibility.

Alex Kummant was formerly president of Amtrak.
Passenger rail, Amtrak in particular, has been a conservative whipping boy for decades. This point of view needs serious re-examination, because national transportation strategy is an issue of US national competitiveness, and passenger rail has a significant role to play.

In short, the US has no transportation strategy, while the fragile air transportation network, decaying roads and bridges, crushing highway congestion, and wobbly urban transit systems only add cost and dysfunction to an already struggling economy. A major federal government role in building and maintaining significant national assets that make the country competitive is entirely consistent with conservative philosophy.

The 250-year economic miracle of the United States has been enabled, in no small part, by the unparalleled transportation capability first found and then built on this continent. It began with the remarkable St. Lawrence Seaway and the harbor-rich East Coast, without which the coastal colony system and its robust trade would have developed very differently. This was followed by the western expansion powered first by the Ohio River system and then by the Mississippi and Missouri river systems. Technical development linked with geography (river banks and plains) then drove the railroad economy, followed by highway and air, always in the international vanguard. Today we falter, as we idle in traffic on the way to the local home building supply store, and have little or no transportation advantage over other nations and geographies.

In the passenger transportation world, conservatives have lost their way with the libertarian mantra of "let the free market work," as though this absolves them of wrestling with the real details of real problems. Witness the chaos of the commercial airlines in the last 25 years, the 150-year boom-bust history of the railroads, and the gradual unwinding of major elements of the troubled British rail privatization.

There is something different about large-scale networks, their construction, and their maintenance. Another network example, outside of transportation, is the national power grid, which is a mess. Imagine trying to crunch a discounted cash flow justification, as a business analyst in one of our modern corporations, of a little project like the 100-year-old tunnels under the Hudson River, without which the East Coast couldn't function today. You would be laughed out of your first big-boss review meeting, because modern economic analysis can't recognize value past about 25 years.

Few realize that on a per-passenger basis, Amtrak has had less capital input than auto transportation nationally. All of the original equipment was made up of cast-off fleets from the commercial railroads -- much of the operation barely had a chance with poorly supported routes and aging railcars. Imagine what a huge Eisenhower-like build out, the hardly liberal highway program of the 1950's and 1960's, would have done for passenger rail at any point in the last 30 years. Any systems analyst will tell you that initial conditions make all the difference in the outcome of complex system performance -- serious early capital input would have changed everything for passenger rail in this country.

And for all the ubiquitous Amtrak bashing from the right, today the Northeast Corridor has captured over 60% of the combined air/rail market between New York and Washington, while gaining over 45% share of the Boston to New York corridor. The overall passenger transportation lane between San Diego and LA could not function today without Amtrak, at times rivaling the Northeast Corridor in total passengers, for short periods of time. And all of the demands for system profitability, historically made by Republicans, are nonsense -- the Amtrak network as a whole actually generates revenue relative to costs quite comparable to most other international passenger rail systems, and its overhead costs are some of the lowest in the passenger rail world, not something one would ever hear from the right. And the international passenger rail systems that claim profitability do so without including infrastructure maintenance costs, which is a political shell game set off two decades ago by the attempt to effectively privatize British Rail.

It is time to ask what has gone right with passenger rail, rather than just to dwell on what has gone wrong. William F. Buckley had some wonderful words that can be applied to conservative views on transportation issues.

"Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great."

With enormous stimulus funds flowing to transportation infrastructure and with 30% of the nation's energy spending driven by transportation, it is time that the Department of Transportation be appropriately organized and be held responsible for a genuine national transportation strategy. The DOT organization still exists in silos by modes -- the air people don't talk to the rail people; the rail people don't talk to the highway people, etc. There isn't even a passenger transportation model that can evaluate a key lane, say, DC to New York, and create a balanced air-rail-highway view.

There is much to be done. Too many airports still support massive airline travel, to their detriment, in 100- to 200-mile hops that should be rail-based. Major freight railroad lanes have capacity and could be used for 110 mph passenger rail travel -- several lanes between major Midwestern cities could be expanded for less than $1 billion each, a drop in the bucket relative to highway construction costs. 

Financing and dedicated funding approaches need to be developed and politically progressed. A national pooled approach for equipment procurement needs to be developed, combining transit and inter-city passenger rail needs. A national approach to decaying passenger train stations needs to be developed. The list goes on.

While a tremendous amount of thoughtful work needs to be done, philosophically this is not difficult. We know where the passengers are; we don't need free market magic to tell us this. We also know where existing rail beds, mountain passes, riverbanks, remaining open urban corridors, bridges, appropriate grades, remaining tunnel opportunities, bumper-to-bumper highways, jammed-up airports, and all the other current transportation congestion points are, regardless of mode.

It is entirely appropriate for the federal government to create a detailed national passenger transportation plan and then to work with local, state, federal, and private sector entities to realize the proposed networks.

Conservatives should make this issue theirs. There are, no doubt, large political pitfalls with earmarks and bridges-to- nowhere, but that can always be an excuse to do nothing. The current approach of the right, basically ignoring the national competitiveness implications of transportation and the related energy issues, is an abdication of responsibility.

Alex Kummant was formerly president of Amtrak.