Alon Levy Sketches a Future for Amtrak

by Reihan Salam

Back in April, Alon Levy wrote a clever post that offered vision for how Amtrak might evolve from its money-losing, highly inefficient present to a profitable, highly efficient future:

Amtrak had initially proposed to spend $117 billion on implementing high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, but backlash due to the plan’s high cost led to a scaling back behind the scenes. After the regulatory reforms of 2013, a new team of planners, many hired away from agencies in Japan, France, and Switzerland, proposed a version leveraging existing track, achieving almost the same speed for only $5 billion in upfront investment. They explained that the full cost of the system would be higher, but service could open before construction concluded, and profits could be plugged into the system.

To get the plans past Congress, President Barack Obama had to agree to limit the funds to a one-time extension of Amtrak’s funding in the transportation bill S 12, which would give it $13 billion for expansion as well as ordinary operating subsidies over six years. To defeat a Senate filibuster, the extension had a clause automatically dismantling Amtrak and selling its assets in case it ran out of money, leading to the first wave of resignations by longtime officials.

One of the key moves in Levy’s imaginary Amtrak revival was a takeover of commuter rail services in the Northeast and California, followed by an aggressive rationalization of route structures and labor practices as the commuter rail services started to be run without respect to pre-existing agency boundaries. In the New York metropolitan area, for example, what had been Metro-North trains could be used on NJ Transit routes and vice versa, thus improving efficiency.

Levy’s scenario might seem too good to be true, but the political foundations of his turnaround — reform of the labor regulations that have stymied productivity gains in the passenger rail industry, the use of a trigger that would dismantle the system if it failed to meet concrete goals — are worthy of consideration.