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Amtrak still taking taxpayers for a ride

As we talked, I tried to imagine Joe Vranich as a young man. We knew each other in the 1970s, when I was a newspaper reporter and he was executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers _ an advocacy group _ and later a spokesman for Amtrak. Now Vranich is 52, and he's in my office plugging his new book, Derailed. It is, surprisingly, a denunciation of Amtrak. "You were right," he wrote me, "and I was wrong." After all these years, Vranich now sees Amtrak as a huge blunder. It's an inescapable conclusion.

Amtrak has always intrigued me as a political parable: a stunning example of government's inability to abandon the old, the stupid and the failed. Amtrak's ridership is stagnant. It was 16.6-million passengers in 1972 (45,000 a day), its first full year; in 1996 it was 19.7-million (54,000 daily). In the same period, the number of airline passengers has tripled, from 191-million (523,000 daily) to 581-million (1.6-million daily). Meanwhile, Amtrak has drained $19-billion in federal subsidies, an amount now rising about $800-million a year.

And things may get worse. By the time you read this, Amtrak may be struck by 2,300 maintenance workers, who want an 18.5 percent wage increase over five years. Amtrak says it cannot afford the raises. Whatever happens, Amtrak is said to be drifting toward "bankruptcy": a situation in which it might shut down because it can't pay its bills.

Perhaps a strike or cash crisis will concentrate Congress' attention on Amtrak's worth. But the record suggests that Amtrak will still survive. The main reason is that it enjoys undeserved public respectability. Some years ago, as I recall, the late John Chancellor gave a TV editorial on Amtrak. He described passenger trains as a sign of a civilized society. Chancellor was a decent man who captured popular opinion. Passenger trains are not merely nostalgic. They symbolize a more relaxed way of life _ a longing for escape. They seem a way to save energy and curb pollution. Trains seem enlightened.

Imagery triumphs over reality: Trains provide few benefits, because they serve so few people. But no one wants to seem unenlightened; politicians dread being cast as the executioners of passenger service. The result is a huge capacity for delusion. When Congress created Amtrak in 1970, the idea was to shift the unprofitable passenger trains of private railroads to a new corporation that, after a small amount of federal money, would become profitable. This scheme, I wrote then, was doomed. Planes carried people long distances more quickly; suburbs had ended the need for most short-distance, city-to-city trains. Except perhaps in dense corridors such as the Northeast, trains made no sense.

Vranich now believes this _ and worse. He thinks that Amtrak impedes first-rate, high-speed trains in the few corridors where they might thrive. "All the visionary proposals for high-speed trains are non-Amtrak proposals," he says. He came to this view the hard way: As president of the High Speed Rail Association in the early '90s, he watched Amtrak fight a proposal for a high-speed train between Dallas and Houston.

No matter. The delusion endures. Congress is now considering an Amtrak "reform" to make it more "businesslike" and shave subsidies. Is this a joke? Well, almost. If the "reform" passes, it would trigger payment of a $2.3-billion tax "refund" to Amtrak even though Amtrak has never paid taxes. This backdoor subsidy is an atrocious abuse of the tax code; it's throwing good money after bad.

Amtrak's problems are intractable. Its equipment is aging. In 1996 the average passenger car was 20.7 years old. Without new investment, service will deteriorate; but new investments can't pay for themselves. The only sensible reform is to shut down Amtrak. Allow a phase-out of a few years. States and localities could assume service they deem essential. This would probably preserve trains in the Northeast Corridor, which account for half of Amtrak's passengers.

The larger lesson here is government's inability to end even the worst programs. If Amtrak survives, everything is safe. This puts the hoopla over the recent balanced-budget agreement in perspective. Congress and the White House actually did little to cut deficits. They would have dropped anyway. By the year 2000, almost 85 percent of the expected drop in the deficit reflects what the Congressional Budget Office calls "economic" and "technical" changes: a stronger economy and higher-than-expected taxes.

Good government should emphasize the necessary and effective and eliminate the wasteful and unneeded. But what we see is a huge inertia that avoids such distinctions. "Do we have an obligation to speak up when we've created something that doesn't work?" Vranich asks. "I think we do. Amtrak is a failure. It will be a failure years from now." This is common sense; it will probably go unheeded.

Robert J. Samuelson is a columnist for Newsweek.

Washington Post Writers Group