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Tuesday, May 03, 2005


PROGRESSIVE REVIEW - The arguments for the war on Amtrak are the equivalent of arguing that all highways in the Boston area should be closed because of the cost overrun on the Big Dig. As a matter of fact, here's something the Amtrak bashers won't tell you: you could run Amtrak for more than a decade on the subsidy that went into the Big Dig, Boston's corrupt monument to bad transportation planning. Or, if you prefer, you could close down Amtrak and run the Iraq war for another six days. Or you could replace Amtrak's eastern corridor with more highway lanes between Washington and Boston. That would only cost you 59 times the annual federal subsidy to Amtrak nationwide.

Here are some other points that get lost in the shuffle that were noted by Deborah White:

- Subsidies for Amtrak since it began in 1971 are less than "loans" given to US airlines since 9/11.

- Amtrak uses just 54% of the energy per passenger mile that airlines consume.

- Many smaller communities are poorly served, or not served at all, by other forms of public transportation. Many people. . . elderly, disabled, those with medical conditions. . . cannot fly, and need trains as a travel option.

- Trains create less pollution because they use less energy. Also, one rail line can carry the equivalent of 16 highway lanes, thus additionally reducing both gas usage and air pollutants.

The government's own statistics point to another factor: the differences in transportation use by class and, consequently, ethnicity. Many of those writing editorials against Amtrak are on expense accounts and are making a big enough salary to fly to Vermont rather than take the regional Amtrak train. Their rhetoric ignores one of the great bastions in American socioeconomic disparity: public transportation. Here are a few of the facts:

BUREAU OF TRANSPORTATION STATISTICS - While, on average, each person in the United States made nine long-distance trips in 2001, socio-demographic variables influence the number of these trips that individuals take. Among these variables are household income, gender, and age.

The number of long-distance trips increases with household income. On average, in 2001, people in households earning $100,000 or more made over twice as many long-distance trips (13 per person) as people in households with incomes of less than $25,000 (6 per person)

The vast majority of long-distance trips are made by personal vehicle, one reason lower income households make fewer long-distance trips. Households earning $25,000 or more a year are almost 10 times more likely to have a vehicle compared with households with incomes less than $25,000.

Higher income households are also more likely to travel by airplane. For instance, people in households earning $100,000 or more made 17 percent of their trips by air, while those in households earning less than $25,000 made 3 percent of their trips by this mode. Low-income households (under $25,000) made a slightly higher share of their trips by bus than did households in higher income groups (4 percent versus about 1 to 2 percent). For train travel, because of small sample sizes, differences in the shares of train trips by household income group cannot be discerned.

BTS - The differences in daily travel among racial and ethnic groups are more readily apparent for miles traveled than for trip-making. Whites traveled farther, averaging 41 miles a day locally (4.4 trips), compared with 34 miles (4.2 trips) for Hispanics, 31 miles (3.9 trips) for blacks, and 31 miles (3.9 trips) for Asians. Long-distance trip taking in 1995 shows a wider variation with non-Hispanic whites taking more than twice the number of long-distance trips as non-Hispanic blacks (4.6 person-trips per capita versus 1.9) and Hispanics (2.1 trips per capita). Asians and Pacific Islanders made 3.0 person trips per capita on average.

FINALLY, there is the matter that the establishment does not like to discuss: its preferred modes of travel - plane and car - are the most dangerously polluting. Sooner or later we are going to have to stop flying so much. For example, during the three day flight suspension following September 11, the variation in high and low temperatures increased by two degrees.


At May 03, 2005 2:33 PM, ck40579 said...

It's all about obfuscation. If you believe the road show, Social Security is to go belly up in 2041. If you were to hold petroleum consumption static at 2003 rates, our global supply will be completely exhausted by 2040. Huh. Which do you think is the more important issue, energy policy or Social Security?

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain......

At May 03, 2005 6:10 PM, Anonymous said...

The last time I rode Amtrak, the train was twelve hours late arriving at its destination.

There are several corridors in the US that desperately need passenger rail; but they need predictable, reliable passenger rail that's capable of taking business away from airlines, not Amtrak in its current form. Even Acela is an ersatz substitute for what we really need; high-speed rail service that will make it unnecessary for multiple airlines to fly between, say, Seattle and Portland, every hour on the hour.

At May 04, 2005 12:22 PM, Anonymous said...

Somebody was telling me that the high cost of Amtrak has to do with it's sharing of rail lines with commercial transport rail. Coal cars and the like.

Does Amtrak have to pay CSX (the big commercial rail company) prohibitively for the use?

At May 04, 2005 3:01 PM, aluxeterna said...

thanks for the info on the Amtrak subsidies! This is the first article I've seen that has put the comparison b/w trains and airlines into perspective. Keep up the good work!

At May 05, 2005 1:20 AM, Anonymous said...

On the W coast, afaik (and I am neither a rail admin nor a lawyer) the rail lines are owned by Union Pacific and Amtrak uses them by arrangement and somewhat on suffrance. The passenger trains have to pull over to let freight go by, which afaik is the reverse of policy anywhere else in the industrialised world. There is a longstanding dispute between Amtrak and UP over the maintenance standards for certain sections of track in California; UP maintains it only to "freight" standard whereas I think their contract w/Amtrak requires "passenger rail" standard. At any rate the upshot is that passenger trains are not allowed to use those sections at the same speed as freight trains, due to Fed safety regs. So (last time I rode from LA to SJ) there were sections where the train had to slow to 15 mph. Add this to lengthy pull-overs on sidings while big freights roar by and you get a very irregular service.

I think can beat that 12 hour story -- I've seen some very late Amtrak trains. OTOH I once made a trip all the way from SJ CA to Glacier Park Montana without using a car. A friend and I decided to have a "car free" vacation and Glacier was the only national park we could find that was well served by train. We had a great time, never rented a car, and the "Empire Builder" (ahem) line running along the Columbia River was one of the most spectacular rides I have ever taken. We were never more than 2 hours late on any leg of that train trip.

The Coast Starlight (N/S on the West Coast, LA to Seattle and back) is possibly the most notoriously late Amtrak service -- nicknamed the Coast StarLATE by those who know and love/hate it. I think this is mostly because of heavy freight traffic and bad line maintenance. Nothing an big infusion of cash and a policy change wouldn't fix. As Kunstler said, we have a passenger rail service that would embarrass a Bulgarian. I have often heard Amtrak passengers of the wealthier (cabin class) variety talk about how ashamed they feel as Americans, to have such an unreliable and underfunded rail service.

At July 01, 2005 1:00 PM, Anonymous said...

In the summer of 2004, my mother, a friend and I traveled round trip from Tucson, Arizona to San Antonio, Texas on the Sunset Limited. The eastbound train was five hours late and the westbound train was 42 hours late. The route ended at El Paso, Texas. Amtrak flew us to Tucson through Phoenix, which was our final destination. (That is another story). On our trip, we had to stay an extra night in our hotel waiting for the train; we incurred extra expenses for meals, etc. we had to wait for freight trains often, slowing us down; Amtrak fed us several meals; passengers became sick; and several other unmentionables because of lack of hygiene. It was not a great experience. The Sunset Limited uses Union Pacific tracks and is almost always late.

But my friend and I love to ride trains. We have taken many train trips together. Amtrak gave us a credit for most of the output we incurred. We used this credit to apply toward a North American Rail Pass, which we used in May 2005. The trip was a great experience. For thirty days in April and May 2005, we traveled over 11,000 miles through Washington, D.C., 35 states and two Canadian provinces. We selected eleven cities to visit; some of these cities would be difficult to visit by airplane or by car. The trip consisted of 20 legs. Of the 20 legs, only two of the trains were lateā€”one of them being the Coast Starlight, which I believe uses Union Pacific tracks.

On our San Antonio trip, an Amtrak agent told us that Union Pacific does not like Amtrak and will do anything within its power to avoid accommodating Amtrak. I can only imagine what would happen if two private companies tried to use the same tracks. The Sunset Limited would probably be terminated because of a lawsuit hung up in our court system.

At February 06, 2007 5:03 PM, Anonymous said...

My wife and I decided instead of flying to Yuma, AZ from Toledo, OH we would use AMTRAk. After checking with several sources, I am beginning to wonder if we made a big mistake. Instead of hearing about the "on-time" reputation of some European trains, I hear about unreasonable late departures and arrival. Who is running AMTRAK, and do they care about customer service???


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