Chelsea Green 2009
Date finished: 2010-10-04
The author spent a year travelling around the US on Amtrak passenger trains, interviewing people to discuss the state of US train service in 2009. There's rising interest in funding local and regional train services and some big dreams, but the long history of mismanagement is sobering. McCommons's account is fascinating, and mixed with a scenes-from-the-road travelogue.
US passenger train service is run in a very odd and patchwork way. Amtrak is a pseudo-private corporation created when US railroads were in severe financial difficulty and wanted to get rid of their money-losing passenger services. It doesn't own any railroad track outside the Northeast corridor, and outside this limited area has to run trains on track still owned by commercial freight companies, who usually prioritize freight traffic over passenger trains, meaning Amtrak's trains face to random delays and are often late. There are infrastructural plans to build double tracks, one for freight and one for passengers, along various bottleneck stretches, but these projects take a long time to build and funding is uncertain, subject to the whims of legislatures, so studies are constantly being done and then not acted upon or scrapped.
Amtrak is supposed to aim for being profitable, yet no one interviewed here thinks that's actually possible; even successful train routes only recover 70-80% of their costs from passenger fares, and unsuccessful ones only earn 10-20%. Even in train-friendly Europe, passenger service doesn't fully recover its costs; government subsidize it as a public service and to encourage other economic development.
Writing in 2009, McCommons finds reasons for optimism: a train-friendly Democratic administration, a $500 billion stimulus bill that includes several train projects. But I'm less cheerful. There's irrational opposition to trains from certain Republicans: in 2002 George W. Bush's administration tried to de-fund Amtrak completely. All the projects take a long time to build, so it's easy for them to get killed when a government changes. There is (admittedly declining) resistance from competing airlines and the rail freight companies. Congress micro-manages Amtrak yet still strives for the unattainable goal of profitability. No, I think the US lacks the focus to improve its train service until forced to by circumstances -- and then it may be too late.
%T Waiting on a Train %S The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service %A McCommons, James %K transportation %G ISBN 978-1-60358-064-9 %I Chelsea Green %C White River Junction, Vermont %P 277pp %D 2009 %@ 2010-10-04 %* *