Politics & Policy

GOP Budget Scrooges Didn’t Cause the Amtrak Wreck

Tuesday’s fatal Amtrak derailment created an instant cacophony of voices that blamed the wreck on a lack of infrastructure spending.

After investigators revealed that the train was traveling 106 miles per hour in a 50 mph zone and that Congress has poured billions into funding for safety features that haven’t been deployed on schedule, liberals backpedaled in search of other equally absurd arguments.

The National Journal reported that Democratic representative Janice Hahn of California actually used a House hearing Wednesday to say that the specific reason for the Philadelphia wreck almost doesn’t matter:

Even sometimes when we find out that the cause of a train accident was human error or something else, it seems that we move away from focusing on, “Did infrastructure play a role?” or “Are we just another bad infrastructure design away from another accident?”

Hahn and many other liberals like to talk about the lack of infrastructure upkeep, but few actually want to take really tough steps to solve the problem. The awful truth is that government officials always will find it easier to fund new projects they can use for ribbon-cutting photo ops. Allocating money for bridge repair or new safety equipment is boring.

RELATED: The Left Won’t Let the Amtrak Tragedy Go to Waste

Politicians are reluctant to challenge special interests who make it harder to allocate infrastructure spending. The Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 requires the federal government to pay construction wages that are based on union rates, as a result these wages are 22 percent above market rates, on average. This shields unions from competition on federal construction projects and adds about $13 billion to the federal deficit every year. Ending the Davis-Bacon giveaway would free up money to repair infrastructure and employ 155,000 more construction workers.

The bottom line is that Amtrak is a typical government entity. Its supporters often want to claim it isn’t. Last year, the Association of American Railroads actually argued in a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that Amtrak was a strictly private entity — a “corporation” chartered by Congress. The Supreme Court unanimously shot that argument down in March when, in an opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, it ruled: “Amtrak was created by the Government, is controlled by the Government, and operates for the Government’s benefit.”

RELATED: The Shameful Rush to Blame the Amtrak Crash on our ‘Infrastructure Crisis’

Well, maybe. It surely doesn’t operate much in the public benefit. High-speed rail trains work well along the crowded transportation corridors of Europe or Asia, but in America they aren’t very realistic outside the Northeast Corridor. And even there, the proposal to add special train tracks along the existing narrow rights-of-way probably wouldn’t get past the first environmental or budget review.

I have been a loyal passenger on Amtrak for more than 30 years, commuting frequently between New York City and Washington, D.C., for my work or to visit friends. Sadly, the service has deteriorated over the last few years even as fares have skyrocketed. The painful truth is that a non-Acela Amtrak train between New York City and Washington now routinely costs $150 for a three-hour-and-forty minute journey — and 30 percent of the trains are late. For $25 or less, several private bus companies such as Bolt Bus or Vamoose operate nonstop service to Washington and its suburbs, with the journey taking four and a half hours. And, from my experience, the buses are late much less often than the trains.

SLIDESHOW: Amtrak Derailment in Philadelphia

Florida GOP representative John Mica is a former chair of the House Transportation Committee. He supports train travel but told the National Journal that the current Congress will never invest in Amtrak because it is an unreformed “Soviet-style train operation.”

‘Amtrak audits are just a litany of lost opportunities, bungled bureaucracy, and infuriating waste.’

He told me in an interview this past January that “ Amtrak audits are just a litany of lost opportunities, bungled bureaucracy, and infuriating waste.” Indeed, the railroad manages to lose $80 million a year on its on-board food service despite extremely high prices and a captive audience.

The time has come to recognize that the politics that created Amtrak have made it impossible to manage. The subsidies Congress votes on every year that keep Amtrak going require the railroad to run a “nationwide” system. A 2011 report by the liberal Brookings Foundation concluded that Amtrak could improve its operation significantly if it Congress didn’t require it to operate 15 little-traveled long-distance routes that account for 80 percent of its losses.

The Brookings analysts said that it’s time to create a truly viable Amtrak system that serves the 83 percent of its customers who travel on routes of less than 400 miles, primarily in the Northeast and along the Los Angeles–San Diego corridor. The Washington Post summed up one of the report’s key recommendations:

Congress should arrange a deal with the states for these 15 longer money-losing Amtrak routes. If a route is losing money, then the states along its path should negotiate how best to provide financial support and fill the hole. (Under the Brookings plan, they’d be allowed to use federal transportation funds.) If the states can’t or won’t chip in, then the routes get pared back.

There are clearly common-sense ways to improve railway safety, reallocate resources to trains that people actually use, and provide enough money for infrastructure improvements. But instead, leftists use every tragedy as an excuse to raise the bloody flag of hysteria and blame Budget Scrooges for the deaths of passengers.

Ever since I found a Märklin model train set under the Christmas tree as a child, I have always loved trains, and I believe they should be a vital part of our nation’s transportation network. But nostalgia for the “song of the rails” doesn’t mean one must insist that trains are for everybody or that they make sense everywhere. The bureaucratic monster named Amtrak is a big impediment to having an American train network we could all be proud of. That’s the real long-term issue we should be talking about in the wake of Philadelphia.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.

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