The Agenda

Amtrak’s Plans for the Northeast and Fast Trains as a ‘Partisan Issue’

After a thorough discussion of Amtrak’s plans for its Northeast Corridor, which strike me as fairly sensible, Yonah Freemark writes:

Amtrak may have found the right cause at the right time. The Obama Administration’s high-speed rail investment program has benefited some states like California, but its expansion into a $53 billion spending regime, as the White House recently suggested to the Congress, is compromised by the fact that fast trains have become — like it or not — a partisan issue.

He goes on to note, however, that the Republican chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, John Mica of Florida, has been complaining “that federal funds were not focused enough on the Boston-Washington line, a place that he deems appropriate for federal investment.” That is, Mica, like many sane people, believes that while HSR might make sense in America’s highest-density region, it doesn’t necessarily make sense in, say, the middle of California’s agricultural heartland or a low-density stretch of Central Florida. 

Yonah continues:

If the company can make a convincing argument that it is the right organization to perform radical repair on the Northeast’s main spine and to construct a brand-new corridor through its biggest cities, it could find support among politicians left and right. It would be very difficult to get away with calling a train line between New York and Washington a “train to nowhere,” to repeat the way too many members of the Tea Party have dismissed other infrastructure projects.

Could it be that Tea Party members have been referring to trains to nowhere because the first leg of the unviable California HSR effort link two cities with a combined population of 25,000? I get the strong sense that Yonah is being needlessly uncharitable to those of us who believe in making fine distinctions between rail lines connecting cities with populations that barely crack five digits and those linking metropolitan areas with populations comfortably in the seven digit range.

And there is a strong case that we need more passenger rail capacity in the Northeast, as Yonah, drawing on testimony by Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman, makes clear:

Mr. Boardman noted Amtrak’s record ridership (28.7 million passengers last year) and pointed out that the corridor is reaching its physical limits. As Amtrak’s air/rail mode share has increased — from 37% between Washington and New York and 20% between Boston and New York in 2000 to 69% and 53% respectively today — the rail company has simply not been able to expand its carrying capacity. This explains why Amtrak fares in the Northeast Corridor are so much higher than those on competitor intercity buses: There is too much demand and not enough supply. Part of the problem is due to the fact that trains are simply not long enough, a difficulty that Amtrak hopes to resolve partially with the addition of new cars to each Acela Express train. Mr. Boardman said that purchase would pay for itself over six years thanks to the Acela service’s operating profits.

I should add, however, that there are many aspects of federal law as it pertains to compensation for Amtrak employees that could stand modernization and reform. It is far from clear that Amtrak is being run as well as it should be, in part due to a combination of misaligned incentives and political interference that keep Amtrak from focusing on what should be its core mission. All that said, I think that many critics of Tampa-Orlando or California HSR can see the logic behind public investment in passenger rail in the Northeast, provided that there are strong accountability mechanisms in place.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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