America’s passenger rails
A third-world system?By Michael G. Williams
While working on a story in 2007, magazine writer James McCommons thought it would be fun to take the Amtrak. He remembers the ride, which took him from Milwaukee to Sacramento up to Seattle, as going really well half of the way and then taking a turn for the worse, ending several hours late with a dining car devoid of food.
The experience fresh in his mind, he returned home on an airplane unable to shake a nagging question: Why is passenger rail travel still like this? He spent the next year or so riding Amtrak around the country to find the answer, which he lays out in his latest book, Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (Chelsea Green, 2009).
McCommons rode thousands of miles of rail, interviewing passengers, Amtrak employees, and transportation experts, along the way peering through the windows of near-empty dining cars as industrial landscapes, thinly populated burgs, and wind-swept prairies scrolled past. These travels, which included corridors from the Middle Atlantic to the Pacific Northwest, ultimately brought him to the conclusion that America’s passenger rail system is dying.
“We have a third-world train system in this country,” says McCommons, whose father and grandfather were lifelong railroad workers. “Over the last 35 years or so, we really haven’t had any rail policy or put any federal money into it, and because of that, Amtrak has only limped along the entire time.”
The birth of Amtrak
McCommons believes one need only look to the birth of Amtrak to find the roots of this faltering system. Hardly an emblem of American support for passenger rail travel, Amtrak’s inception in 1971 was simply a way of taking the passenger operations away from the railroads, which were making substantially bigger profits moving freight.
“By this time, the railroads were making money on freight but hemorrhaging cash on their passenger lines,” he explains. “I interviewed a couple of people who were actually involved with Amtrak’s creation, and they said that they weren’t interested in creating a great passenger system. They were just trying to save the freight railroads.”
McCommons estimates that, even today, a freight train of 50 cars produces roughly $88,000 in revenue a trip between Chicago and New York, compared to the $2,000 that Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited generates on the same route.
In addition to the private rail companies, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Department of Transportation also seem to have pushed passengers to the wayside, further contributing to nearly 40 years of neglect that McCommons believes has left the nation with a skeletal and outmoded rail system maintained largely through state money.
He notes that matching federal funds for passenger rail improvements didn’t exist until after the Bush Administration’s passage of the Amtrak Funding and Rail Safety Bill in 2008. Before then, a state could get an 80/20 match from the feds if it wanted to add a lane to a highway but nothing for laying another high-speed track.
Disconnected passenger rail system
“Because so much of the burden has fallen on the states, we have a passenger rail system that’s very disconnected,” says McCommons. “States like California, Illinois, Wisconsin, and North Carolina are pouring big bucks into their high-speed infrastructure to accommodate Amtrak, but what about the states in between?”
Indeed, McCommons, who lives in northern Michigan, says that the railhead nearest to his home is 300 miles south in Milwaukee, Wis., a far cry from the efficient, well-connected passenger system that Europeans have enjoyed for years.
“In Europe, they see trains as a public infrastructure or utility rather than a private enterprise,” he observes. “In the U.S., we’ve built every idea around cars. That’s where we’re reinforcing speed and convenience. In Europe, on the other hand, you have trains that pull right into airports, making vehicles a lot less necessary.”
As McCommons mentioned, there are a handful of states thinking along this wavelength, but he’s also quick to point out that a handful isn’t enough. California, for one, already has $1 billion worth of rail projects just waiting for federal dollars to get them started. Still, that won’t do much to establish the interstate connection that McCommons argues is crucial to building a passenger rail system on par with Europe’s.
One historian that McCommons interviewed for the book was of the opinion that the U.S. is a nation “that just hasn’t figured out rail,” something that could improve with the right government intervention.
“The idea that Americans are just a bunch of drivers who won’t get on a train really isn’t true,” says McCommons. “Of course, the only way to prove it is to put passenger rail back into the mainstream of transportation.”