The number of passenger train routes and number of passengers that use trains each year is a mear shadow of what was here only a half-century ago. If you think we got this way because people prefer flying or driving over trains, think again!
I first wrote this page early in 1996. Since that time, I have talked to many more people and read quite a bit more about passenger rail travel. I have not changed any of my opinions, but I have added some additional comments and provided additional food for thought over the years. The year captions below refer to the year that each commentary was added.
I was aware that government subsidies for the construction, operation and maintenance of the infrastructure for highways and airways had artificially altered the marketplace, but I had no idea how much until I read the two books below.
For example, did you know that for every dollar that you spend on air travel, it costs taxpayers at least twice that amount for your trip? In other words, if it costs $100 to purchase a ticket for air travel, taxpayers foot the bill for an additional $200 when you total all the tax money that has gone into the construction and maintenance of air terminals and the operation of federally funded air-traffic control. That doesn't even include the cost of the National Weather Service and the billions spent on weather satellites without which safe commercial air travel would not be possible. (And after 9/11/01 is the massive costs of the federalized TSA personnel and equipment plus the supplement of additional local police assigned to airports of which only a fraction is covered by additional security fees on airline tickets.)
The economy of using highways for travel are as equally distorted. Without tolls, they appear to be free to use. In reality, highways are the most expensive of all transportation infrastructures to build and maintain. But you never see that cost directly as it is all paid through mandatory taxes on gasoline and from general state and federal revenues.
Of all means of transportation, rail is the only one where passengers are expected to pay their own way in the price of a ticket! Every year the government tries to reduce or eliminate the subsidies to Amtrak and would like to require riders to pay the full cost of Amtrak. In the meantime, goverment subsidies continue to grow every year for highways and air transportation!
With the price of flight tickets and highway travel being held artifically low to travelers (while travelers still bear the full burden invisibly through taxes), it is no wonder that rail travels appears to be the more expensive alternative. This unequal treatment of rail transportation is unique to North America. Elsewhere in the world where rail travel is on an even playing field with other modes of transportation, passenger rail construction and usage is growing at an ever faster pace!
Most rail advocates call for increased rail subsidies to keep the system alive and upgrade its technology to meet the needs of tomorrow. I'm a libertarian at heart and cannot philosophically endorse that solution. What I would like to see is the total privatization of all modes of transportation along with an end of tax subsidies to all of them. That would place rail at a more even par with air and auto travel. Yes, I'm advocating that all interstates become toll roads to pay for their own construction and maintenance costs. But I'm also advocating the elimination of the gasoline tax directly and the hidden taxes on the cost of production and delivery. Instead, users of highways would pay directly each time they use a highway via tolls high enough to cover all costs of construction, maintenence, improvements as well as all highway services such as policing, lighting, sweeping, etc.
With changes like that, you would see the true price of getting from point A to point B using the various alternatives. In most cases, rail travel would be the least cost method. Other methods would be available to you, but you would see the true cost of those alternatives. You would then have the freedom to decide if you wanted to pay for the more expensive alternative or if you wanted to save your money and go by rail. Keep in mind that today you still pay through taxes for air and auto travel even when you travel by rail. Even if you don't own a car or never fly, you are not exempt from paying the portion of taxes that go into the construction, maintenance and support of these transportation modes. You do not have a choice in how you would like your money spent.
The two books listed below are scholarly, but very interesting and readable works, that itemize blow by blow exactly what caused the downfall of American rail travel. On the brighter side, they also explain why the resurgence of rail travel in our future is inevitable.
The above is just a tiny taste of what I have learned from the books below. If you are interested in the real truth about the demise of rail travel in America instead of the accepted myths, then you need to read these books. I thought I understood what happened to rail travel and what the future held for it until I read these books. These books will show you the pro-active role taken by highway, air, and even rail freight interests to destroy rail travel over the last 40 years. But better yet, it will show you why their efforts will fail in the long run and the future will see the birth of new high-speed cost-effective rail service in America.
Let's talk about a "radical" idea. The federal government has spent untold billions of tax dollars to create and then to maintain the transportation infrastructure of this nation for planes, trucks, cars and even ships! By contrast, rail has only received a drop in the bucket of tax dollars for its infrastructure compared to these other modes of transportation.
Governments involvement in rail is backwards compared to any other mode of transportation:
In each case above, the government has taken on the task of building the transportation infrastructure and then continuing to operate and maintain those infrastructures using tax dollars. Rail is the only case in which this is reversed. The freight railroads own, maintain and operate the infrastructure. The government owns and operates the vehicles used to transport people over the infrastructure.
For a fun exercise, try to imagine each interstate owned, operated and maintained by a different trucking company and the government paying each trucking company for buses to transport people on those roads. Let's not talk about the inefficiencies involved as each trucking company tried to transport goods only over their own roads, or had to get into complex negotiations when they wanted to use each others roads! Probably doesn't matter as it would all eventually end up in a bunch of mega-mergers. As a similar exercise, you can imagine each airport owned by a different airline and the government owning, maintaining and operating the passenger aircraft. I think similar inefficiencies and unprofitability would be the result, much the same as we have today with Amtrak.
What do I see as a solution? Although my politics are libertarian and I hate to call for government funding of anything, it doesn't look like we are going to get the government out of other transportation modes anytime in the near future. Thus, to establish a level playing field, I think that govenment's involvement in rail should be similar to that in the other transportation modes. Eventually, I think all of the national transportation infrastructure should be turned over to private entities, but as long as that is not the case, then I think that all of the infrastructure needs to be owned and maintained by the government.
Before you panic, I don't mean I believe that each airport should be turned over to a different airline or each interstate to a different trucking company. I think that individual airports or individual interstates or sets of airports and interstates should be owned, maintained and operated by private infrastructure companies. These infrastructure companies would not own or operate any freight or passenger services themselves due to conflict of interest, but would sell use of the infrastructure via leases or tolls to the freight and passenger users of the infrastructure. Since there are often multiple airports and highways serving most places in the nation, this would encourge competition among infrastructure providers.
But, we are not there yet. Right now, government has a monopoly on providing the infrastructure for air and road transportation. I think we should change the rail situation so it is the same as that for air and road. The government should take over maintenance and operation of the entire rail infrastructure, including the enhancement of such to be able to accommodate current and future requirements. This is exactly what government does for air and roads. As the need increases, the government increases the capacity of the air and road systems: more highways are built, highways are made wider, more runways are built, etc. The government would have to evaluate current and future rail needs for both freight and passenger service and improve the rail infrastructure to meet those needs.
The first thing the government would need to do to provide an acceptable rail infrastructure in this nation would be to double-track the entire backbone. Can you imagine if our interstate highway system was made up of single lane roads in some places where traffic going east and west had to wait to take turns using a single lane road? That is the way most of our railroads are built! No wonder the freight railroads are always complaining to the government that they don't have adequate capacity to allow Amtrak trains on their tracks without a degredation of service to their freight customers!
The next item would be to reduce or eliminate all grade-level crossings. An expensive and impossible task, you say? It was done for the interstate highway system. Can you imagine minor streets crossing interstate highways with just a set of traffic lights to regulate the flow of traffic? What impact would that have on the efficiency of the interstates? How much would that delay you in getting to your destination? What horrifying traffic accidents would result from that method of regulating traffic? Are you starting to get the picture of where rail traffic finds itself?
Seperate sets of tracks should be built for freight and passengers trains wherever possible. The characteristics of those two types of trains are quite different and they really don't belong on the same tracks. Freight trains are heavier and slower and place a great deal of wear on the tracks. For this reason, minor derailments where wheels come off the tracks are not that uncommon. Passenger trains are relatively light and can travel very fast. They place very little wear on tracks, but they do require tracks be built differently to optimally handle the higher speed and to deliver a comfortable ride to passengers. Passenger tracks and trains should be electrified where possible.
Forget about Mag-lev and other high-speed trains of the future for now. Much can be done to improve rail-passenger services in this country, enough I believe to make it an extremely viable transportation alternative, without the introduction of an entire next generation technology. Just placing passenger trains on their own electrified tracks built for higher speed with the elimination of grade-level crossings would improve passenger rail in this nation by many magnitudes!
So who would operate the trains? That doesn't matter to me. If the government provides the infrastructure, then I think we can have many private companies actually building, owning and operating passenger trains. Then we would have a situation similar to the relationship between private airlines and government owned and operated airports and services. The same would go for freight rail operations. The freight railroads would be free of the burden to own, operate and maintain the tracks, just as trucking operations do not have to own, operate or maintain the interstate highway system. Through taxes or tolls the users of the rail system pay for their usage, but they don't have to concern themselves with making sure the infrastructure exists and stays in good condition. Nor do they have to be concerned about the infrastructure being adequate for their needs other than to put the pressure on government to expand that infrastructure as needed, just as we all have to do as more facilities are needed for transportation on the road and in the air.
With the government having responsibility for the rail infrastructure just like it does for the air and road infrastructure, I think you would see a great decrease in the rail mega-mergers that have been taking place over the last decade. Also, there is no reason why any company with enough capitol could not get into the rail business. Once you take away the requirement that you have to own the rails to operate a rail freight business, you remove the barrier for new entrants. Imagine if you had to have enough money to build your own interstate to get into the trucking business, or enough money to build your own airports to get into the airline business?
That brings us right into politics. Without political energy and funding behind the above idea, it will never happen. Where is all the political energy and funding right now in the transportation sector? Most of it is in the highway lobby. When transportation problems come up, their solution is to build more highways or make our current highways wider or build them to two levels. The answer is always more highway capacity. That is because that lobby is made up of trucking companies, highway construction companies constructions suppliers, auto clubs, the automobile industry and the oil industry.
If you want to get political muscle into the future of rail, then a way must be found to make rail in the political and financial interest of these companies. If the highway interests can be involved in the building and maintenance of this nations highways, then they will see rail as a source of income rather than a drain on the funds that currently go to them. If that can be achieved, then the powerful and well-funded highway lobby might be an ally rather than an adversary in trying to get the rail system in this nation up to par.
If the government was responsible for the rail infrastructure just like it is for road and air, then large companies such as J.B.Hunt and U.P.S. could operate their own trains. Many of the larger trucking companies would be able to do so. Thus, funding of rail would no longer look like competition to the trucking companies, but just an alternate mode of transportation over which they can still make a profit.
Until the political and financial clout of the highway lobby can be brought to support rail, then rail will remain a second class mode of transportation mostly reserved for bulk items that can't go by truck and intermodal traffic that is not extremely time sensitive. Rail passenger travel as a result will remain on the verge of extinction.
The question is: does American want rail to be a viable major transportation option or does it not care if it remains a step-child in the allocation of of this nation's transportation tax dollars?
Over the last ten years, Amtrak has experienced more than a 50% increase in ridership. This increase in ridership is continuing to grow year after year. As fuel prices increase, roads become more congested, and air travel becomes increasingly expensive, inconvenient and intrusive more and more people are seeking better transportation alternatives. Every year many discover the convenience and comfort of rail travel.
Unfortunately, the resources available to handle this increasing Amtrak ridership has not grown in proportion. The demand far outstips the number of passenger rail cars that Amtrak owns, the frequency at which they can run the trains, and even the limited number of routes they cover. The demand is there for more trains, longer trains, and more routes. Amtrak's ability to cover its own costs is greatly restricted by the number of seats they can provide.
Likewise, the usage and demand for commuter and light rail is growing in cities throughout the nation. At this 40th Anniversary of Amtrak a resurgence in the demand for passenger rail transportation is upon us. High speed rail, something common throughout much of the developed world but totally absent in America, is finally garnering attention.
The interest in passenger rail never died in this nation. It never even came close to being an unviable or uneconomical method of travel. If not for the intrusion of government into subsidizing more favored transportation modes as roads and air and distorting the free market, the viability of passenger rail travel would never have been in question.