The Frustrating Difficulty of Making Amtrak Better

by Will on September 27, 2010


The WSJ has the scoop:

Opposition from freight railroads is threatening the Obama administration’s multibillion-dollar push to make high-speed passenger trains an integral part of the U.S. transportation network.

The standoff demonstrates the difficulties of introducing new passenger service to a rail network that is at least 90% owned by freight railroads and outfitted for slower trains.

To save time and money, government officials want new high-speed rail routes to operate on the vast system of train corridors that already crisscross the U.S., unlike European and Asian countries that have built dedicated tracks for high-speed rail.

But Norfolk Southern Corp., Union PacificCorp. and other railroad companies are balking at sharing their tracks or rights-of-way with trains that would run between 90 and 200-plus miles an hour.

I joke when I say this is a scoop. This has been going on forever. Please note that commercial freight trains operate with a huge ongoing subsidy: the right-of-way on the rails that the government paid to put in back when Grant was president. That’s absurd. It leads to a situation where public rail cannot compete with the government-subsidized roads, because the private train companies are always pushing it around, claiming right-of-way on lines that the public rail company wants to ship riders on. So the riders just have to sit and wait while the commercial freight train goes through, and they steam and think, “I should have driven.”

This is manifestly unsound. Rail companies have an effective monopoly with regard to the tracks, and are competing against trucking companies who also enjoy a subsidy in the form of free roads. Monopolies are exploitative. It was the contention of Henry George, Eugene Debs, and many other populists of yore, that railroad companies ought to be taken over by the public, and operated at cost. This eventually happened with passenger rail, but only because passenger rail had become unprofitable and so the private companies didn’t want to do it any more. Amtrak should be extended to run the freight trains, and give priority to passenger trains. The private freight companies are purely rentiers, standing in the way of the interests of the public. Let’s put them out of business. We’re being called socialists anyhow; a little more socialism in the transit sector would be a good thing. We as a people, when wishing to make short-distance trips, have the right to have a transit alternative to sitting in expensive metal boxes that are trying to kill us.

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