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 The Brancatelli File

joe DIE, AMTRAK, DIE

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

June 27, 2002 -- David Gunn, who's run Amtrak for two months and has already shown he is arrogant enough and stupid enough to run a major airline, put a metaphorical gun to America's head three weeks ago.

Give me an immediate $200 million loan or I'll shut down the nation's passenger railroad system in three weeks, Gunn demanded. He laid it on thick, too. Amtrak was broke, he claimed. If he didn't get his money immediately, Gunn promised to bring the nation's limping railroad system to a halt. He wouldn't just shut down the perennially unprofitable long-haul trains, he also promised to shutter the creaky, but profitable, Northeast Corridor services between Boston and Washington.

America laughed. America shrugged. America yawned.

Gunn's shutdown deadline came and went this week. Amtrak didn't stop. And like all corporate bullies who've been confronted, Gunn scurried back to his government-funded corner office and began to babble conciliatory platitudes. Under pressure from the White House, Gunn somehow found enough scratch to keep Amtrak running though at least the Fourth of July holiday. And while there may be some additional taxpayer money forthcoming in the next few days, it won't be anywhere near $200 million. Gunn has been told to do what he was hired to do: Shut up, fix Amtrak and stop threatening a nation that, generally speaking, couldn't give a damn about him or his goofy hodgepodge of a railroad.

In a way, that's too bad. Because it really is time to shut Amtrak down. Scrap the whole system. Write off the $100 billion or so we've invested in Amtrak since it was founded in haste and panic in 1971 and admit we've made an awful mistake.

Or, let me put it this way: Die, Amtrak, Die. Don't let the caboose door hit your bureaucratic butts as you shut out the lights.

Now please don't get me wrong. I am a big fan of railroads as a mass-transit solution. I've been getting to school or getting to work by train for all my life. Amtrak trains literally run right past my office window. My first choice is always a mass-transit solution. I'm a train kind of guy.

But Amtrak has got to go. It has a 30-year history of the wrong products at the wrong time, bureaucratic ineptitude, fleet decrepitude, labor inflexibility and just about anything bad you can imagine that could result when the federal government tries to run a consumer service built on the moldy bones of an outdated relic.

If we are going to have rational, useful rail service in the United States, then we have to stop looking backward. The Twentieth Century Limited may have been a great train, but it just doesn't matter today. The glorious past may have been glorious, but it is also the past. It's time to move on.

And like so many things--the major mainline airlines, for instance--the only intelligent way to build a passenger railroad is to focus on the products and services a potentially profitable system would sell if it was built from scratch today.

Forget long-haul trains. We have these things called jets now, so there isn't much of a market for trains that run between, say, Chicago and Los Angeles. (That probably explains why Amtrak's Southwest Chief loses a staggering $236 per passenger on that route.) No business traveler is going to choose a nearly 20-hour train ride between New York and Chicago when even a padded-time airline itinerary requires just three hours. (Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited loses $142 per passenger on the New York-Chicago run.)

What America wants and will pay for in the 21st Century is efficient, short-haul trains between major market centers. That's why Amtrak, even with its indifferent service and not-high-speed-enough Acela, is outperforming the airlines along the East Coast. What lunatic would fly between Philadelphia and Baltimore when the train does it in an hour? There are plenty of these potentially profitable runs where well-run railroad companies could operate: Chicago-Milwaukee; Los Angeles-San Diego; Miami-Orlando-Tampa; and on and on.

Another thing the market would pay for is inter-modal connectivity. Trains should connect outlying population centers to major national airport gateways, which is why the Amtrak stations at Newark International and Baltimore Washington Airport are so useful.

And we don't need the government--the federal government, at least--running our rail services. God knows, one generation of Amtrak is enough. If a rational, profitable rail service is to exist in this country, then private industry should provide it.

Which brings us to the final canard. Amtrak apologists--and even some of the more clear-eyed rail observers--point out that no rail system anywhere in the world runs without subsidies. So what? This is America and we need to do things in a way that makes sense for us. And Amtrak doesn't make any sense.

Why should the high-paying business travelers on Acela be subsidizing leisure travelers on the Crescent between New York and New Orleans or underwrite vacationers on the California Zephyr between Chicago and the Bay Area? Those trains are running losses in the range of $150 a passenger.

The better way is for the profitable short-haul routes to be run by private railroad companies focusing on providing what frequent riders need. And if there is a market for long-haul leisure trains, let some other private companies get some fancy rail cars, run a good, inventive holiday service and charge accordingly. If vacationers won't pay, then don't run the trains.

And, yes, I accept that there is a middle ground: routes where a government subsidy is needed because offering unprofitable trains is in the public interest. But those subsidies should come from local governments. The trains should be run by local concerns focused on providing service local people want and local taxpayers will fund. If Illinois needs and wants trains between Chicago and Springfield, then let Illinois taxpayers make the call. Dallas-Houston by rail? Sure, if Texans want to pay for it. Billings to Helena, Montana? That's a call for Montana taxpayers, not for a Washington bureaucracy.

This is America. A one-size rail company definitely does not fit all. And Amtrak fits none, so it's time for it to die.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.