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Off the Rails, Again and Again

eye on the news

Off the Rails, Again and Again

How Washington ensures that rail travel in the Northeast Corridor remains a nightmare April 17, 2017
Cities
Infrastructure and energy

On Good Friday evening, just as the Easter rush was starting, Amtrak and NJ Transit experienced their third major breakdown in less than a month when a NJ Transit train lost power in the Hudson rail tunnel, stranding passengers on the train for three hours and causing massive delays at Penn Station. What resulted was a highly charged atmosphere in which frustrated passengers apparently became unruly and police tasered one man, sparking widespread panic as erroneous reports spread that shots had been fired.

Much has been said, including by City Journal, over the last several weeks about the operating inadequacies and wrongheaded spending priorities of both Amtrak and NJ Transit. Still, the mistakes keep coming. The Hudson rail tunnel has suffered from a lack of investment, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that Amtrak maintenance inspectors had apparently discovered the deteriorating tracks that would cause the April derailment but hadn’t fixed them quickly because they underestimated the severity of the problem. On Friday, passengers had to sit in the stranded NJ Transit train for three hours because the combined agencies couldn’t seem to agree on the best plan to extract them. Several riders needed treatment from emergency medical personnel. That should be an unnecessary cross for commuters to bear on any day.

Some critics have tried to blame Congress for underfunding Amtrak. “For far too long, Amtrak has been tremendously undercapitalized to the point that they now have an over $28 billion state-of-good-repair backlog,” New York senator Chuck Schumer said recently, comparing Amtrak’s funding woes with disinvestment by New York in its subway system during the 1970s. Expect to hear more of this in the aftermath of Friday’s accident.

Here’s the reality that a New York representative like Schumer should certainly understand. The safety and convenience of passengers on the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor of Amtrak, including NJ Transit and Long Island Rail Road commuters who ride on trains using Amtrak infrastructure, are being sacrificed for the quixotic notion of maintaining a long-distance national rail system. That system, which includes many lightly traveled lines, has drained Amtrak of its resources for years, sending hundreds of millions of dollars in profits that Amtrak actually earns in the Northeast Corridor to other areas of the country and requiring the train system to go to Congress when it needs money for additional infrastructure investment.

While Schumer and other Amtrak advocates complain about funding, passengers in the Northeast must understand just how carelessly their interests are treated in Washington. For one thing, Congress consistently ignores calls to trim Amtrak’s most heavily subsidized operations because Amtrak is really a jobs program to some legislators. As Clark Whelton reported in City Journal several years ago, 2012 Congressional hearings on Amtrak revealed that the railroad was losing $80 million a year just on its food-service operations. When congressional critics suggested that Amtrak might license that business to a private operator who could sell food for cheaper prices, attract more customers, and turn a profit on the trains, Democratic congressman Nick Rahall commented, “It’s a whopper of an idea, trading good-paying jobs for cheaper hamburgers.”

Passengers in the Northeast also suffer because of the influence of environmentalists who believe America has a moral duty to operate a national long-distance rail system—even if few people are willing to travel, for instance, between Chicago and San Francisco by train. Whatever the real virtues and appeal of mass transit in a densely packed city like New York, the number of cars taken off the road by passengers switching to Amtrak’s long-distance lines is minuscule, and the impact on the environment is negligible. Yet when proponents of Amtrak beat back an attempt to cut funding for seldom-used lines in 2009, a spokesman for the National Resources Defense Council intoned, “Congress is clearly catching up with public support for more and cleaner transportation choices.” That’s a statement at odds with reality, as ridership figures show.

Despite the powerful interests backing Amtrak, there’s a real opportunity for reform now. In his recently released budget, President Trump has proposed reducing funding for Amtrak’s heavily subsidized long-distance lines and allowing more money generated by the profitable but undercapitalized Northeast corridor—which hosts more than 11 million riders annually—to stay in the area. Add those 11 million riders to the approximately 175 million trips that local commuters from NJ Transit and the LIRR take annually on trains that use Amtrak tracks and Penn Station, and the logic of funneling more money into Northeast becomes inescapable. It’s the kind of idea that should cheer local train passengers and unite our representatives in Washington, as well as the governors of New York and New Jersey.

That Trump’s proposal hasn’t generated this kind of enthusiasm—at least, not yet—is a reminder of how the interests of tens of millions of train riders in New York and New Jersey are still not a priority in Washington.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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