Libertarians vs. Amtrak

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muralist0221

Active Member
I know there are some anti-passenger rail Libertarians on here who might find this interesting. CNBC had a debate between Russ Capon of National Association of Railroad Passengers and a rep from the Cato institute, a Libertarian think tank. They limited the discussion to congestion around big cities (New York) claiming that $60 billion is lost in fuel and productivity by people stuck in traffic jams. The Libertarian took the stance that highways pay for themselves and we need to build more and/or widen them. The Cato man further lamented the $60 billion (in 40 years)hemorraging of taxpayer money for Amtrak. Capon accused his protagonist of having his gaze fixated on the rear view mirror.
From what I know about Libertarians, they (as I do) believe in competition. This equates to lower prices and more employment choices for the worker bees. They also listed the abolition of Amtrak as their number one objective. Please Libertarians answer some questions. You seem to think doing away with Amtrak will balance the federal budget. What about $15 trillion spent on poverty programs during that same period? How about one trillion spent on our foray into Iraq and Afghanistan which even military consultants claim might have been a mistake? Where are you going to build or widen the roads into New York City. How many structures will be razed and how much will that cost. Futhermore, you and George Will think there is a government conspiracy to pull motorists out of their beloved autos and force them on to Amtrak trains. Maybe, if those people who don't like being on the highway took the train, there would be more room on the highway for independent auto loving Libertarians. (George Will flies in a Lear jet) Isn't America about having many choices. The Cato man also suggested that transportation be controlled by the states rather than Washington D.C. In the case of higher speed rail, isn't that being done at present?
 
You're asking questions that I suspect very few, if any, people on this forum will try to answer logically and from an anti-rail point of view.
 

Beverlyhelper

beverlyhelper
I get your point, but many general rail fans are anti-passenger and/or anti long distance service.
In my family, I learned long ago never to argue politics or religion, and I think this discussion fits into that category. You will never convince the believers (on either side of the fence). It's a sad statement on our current national political discussion - e.g, there is no discussion. People have their backs to the wall and won't give an inch either way.
 

muralist0221

Active Member
I suspect you are right about politics on RailroadForums. I switch back and forth between here and the Trains Magazine forum and might have been confused as to which blog to put on which forum. The Trains forum is more spirited on the higher speed rail/Amtrak issue. RailroadForums is more of a general rail fan website.

Think the problem with politics now days is the tendency of people to buy into the whole liberal or conservative agenda instead of using a "cafeteria style" approach on issues. In my 67 years, have suffered under both philosophies.
 

wigwagfan

Passenger
They also listed the abolition of Amtrak as their number one objective. Please Libertarians answer some questions. You seem to think doing away with Amtrak will balance the federal budget.
I'm not aware of any Libertarians that believe that abolishing Amtrak is the number one objective, but it is true that Amtrak is a perfect example of where the federal government was never intended to, nor should have intervened. I agree that Amtrak should go - why is it acceptable that some communities get Amtrak service, with its expensive to operate dining and sleeping cars, while other communities get nothing, and still others get the private enterprise Greyhound (or another bus company) with no federal support - Greyhound pays quite a pretty penny in all sorts of taxes - income, property, sales, use, fuel, tire - that Amtrak doesn't pay. Amtrak's supporters claim that the dining car is a necessity - yet transcontinental airlines and Greyhound somehow don't have dining services with wait staff.

I would have no objection to having the federal government (or, preferably, the state governments who are in support of passenger trains through their territories) subsidizing the operations of passenger trains by the owning "freight" railroads and covering the costs of the locomotive and coach cars, and the necessary station and platform facilities to allow safe access to and from the trains. That's right - subsidizing the basic, necessary coach service ONLY. There is no reason to subsidize food service (otherwise, why shouldn't EVERY citizen in this country receive subsidized food service - I sure as heck would love to have a waiter serve me every meal every day!) or sleeping car service which is a clear luxury (otherwise, why shouldn't EVERY citizen receive subsidized sleeping facilities, especially in a country that has a significant homeless population and few governments provide any meaningful assistance towards eliminating that problem?)

In general, the freedom to travel is a right - but the government has no obligation to provide transportation. Motorists and air transport users pay hefty taxes of all sorts for the government to provide open access vehicles of transportation - public roads, airports, an air traffic control system. Commercial boaters pay various fees that support locking systems and aids to navigation. Of course freight railroads own, operate and maintain their own infrastructure. But I have to buy my own car, or pay for a Greyhound or airline ticket without significant subsidy from the government - yet Amtrak gets far more money - some estimates put Amtrak's subsidy at 30 times that of any other transport mode user. Why should that be? Why is Amtrak somehow exempt from the rules that every other player in the transport field must play by - especially when Amtrak flaunts its "no additional fees" game?
 

wigwagfan

Passenger
And for the record, I'm against the wars - but this is a railroad forum. Unfortunately Amtrak is a political beast as well as a railroad, so I'm happy to discuss my views on Amtrak here. If you want to talk about non-railroad matters, let's take it elsewhere. I have plenty of objections to government spending, but none of them involve railroads - and this is a railroad forum. I do like to keep it on topic.
 

muralist0221

Active Member
Went to a shopping mall once when the Libertarians had a booth. Got on their mailing list. The first brochure listed their priorities and abolition of Amtrak was, indeed, number one which puzzled me. However, there should be a little Libertarian in all of us.
Am stepping lightly on this issue, so as not to get away from the central focus of this website, as you indicated.I think most agree there needs to be a better way to fund rail transportation. One third of the $1.4 billion (typical) subsidy is used to lobby (or bribe) for the next years funding. When you fly on European Airlines, their respective governments fund meal service. Since the wheels are coming off the U.S. airlines, that is no longer a problem here. For now, Amtrak needs to charge more for meal service to achieve the break even point.
 

jmlaboda

New Member
"But I have to buy my own car, or pay for a Greyhound or airline ticket without significant subsidy from the government..."

Gee, where? Greyhound benefits from federal and state money used to maintain roads (and many routes were discontinued when they acquired Trailways, leaving a large number of towns without ANY type of alternative transportation). And airlines, the vast majority do get tax money, for airports and other things, at a considerably higher level than what Amtrak gets.
 

Tower 55

Its DGNO. Not Dingo!
I'll take a bite at the bait.

I do believe Amtrak should be dissolved. I think European style HSR is a bad idea here. I think forcing PTC on the rails, and the way it was brought about is absurd. That said, I think passenger trains can survive.


With regards to Amtrak, I dont believe government should be in business. I believe the government can, and should, help business. These days the government cant run the government correctly, political affiliation be damned.

I believe that Class 1s can run passenger service better and should take over passenger service again. This gives them an incentive to keep trains on time. It is no longer an "Amtrak Train". It becomes "Our Train". I believe the Class 1s should make their own routes up and specify their own equipment needs.

I believe that government grants should be issued to the Class 1s to upgrade the rail lines(CTC/PTC, higher speeds) that have been chosen for use by the passenger trains. Grants for new equipment such as new passenger cars, newer and more reliable diesel/electric locomotives, etc. Tax breaks will be used for the Class 1s to help offset losses. I believe under these conditions passenger rail service can not only survive, but also thrive.


I'll move onto HSR. The trains primary competitor is, and always be, the car. Even if the train does 220MPH, it still gets its ass kicked by the airplane. Despite what Trains Magazines biased agenda tells you, when the trains in western Europe reach over 200MPH, its only for a short while. Maybe 15 minutes. Its a fairly dense population there hence why they cant get up to the 200+MPH they like to brag about. The ones that do get up to high speed do so because they are essentially traveling through wastelands and areas with small populations.

HSR simply isnt going to be able to use existing RoWs like some believe. An all new RoW is required. In specific that RoW MUST be as straight as possible, as flat as possible, and have as few obstacles(bridges, roads, etc) as possible. It means a lot of peoples land will simply have to be "acquired" via eminent domain. All that translates into lots of money, and lost rights.

Oh, and before someone says "the needs of many outweigh the needs of the few", all I can say is welcome to the United States of America, a republic for which it stands. When a person buys something, it should be there's, and they shouldnt be pressured to sell it, even if the offers are above FMV. Taking away peoples land for something the may or may not work, or be self sustaining is disgusting.

For those people that claim that HSR will be cleaner, I say prove it. BUilding so-called "green machines" is actually quite dirty. HSR will need to draw more power from current power plants in which most are coal burning. That means more coal will be needed. I've heard the HSR advocates claim they will draw power from clean sources, again, prove it. Once electricity hits the grid, be it from coal plants, natural gas plants, wind, water, nuclear, it just power. It isnt segregated by where it comes from.


As for PTC, see Fred Frailey's recent article in April 2011 Train Magazine. Spot on. A total knee jerk reaction to the MetroRail tragedy that neither addresses the actual problem, and can cause many others.
 

muralist0221

Active Member
Your suggestion about Class 1 railroads taking over passenger operations may have some merit. The government could provide tax relief or outright subsidies to upgrade roadbeds to 119 MPH. The freight railroads have reinvented themselves since the 60's when speed was not their priority. Today, they compete successfully with the long haul truckers. Have seen many FedEx Ground trucks on the highway and that company is now experimenting with rail as an option. Long haul passenger trains such as the Southwest Chief lose money. If you had 35 hour service between Chicago and L.A., expedited freight could be coupled in front of the Chief during slow ridership periods and bring the passenger operation to a break even point. Amtrak tried this a few years back, but ran into interference from the freight railroads who resented the competition. They must also engineer a way of getting the freight cars in the consist quicly without slowing the train departure and arrival times, as was the problem with the Amtrak venture.

High Speed Rail seems like a long way off. Higher Speed Rail is far more realistic. When freight trains can move material faster than trucks, they would be a more willing partner.
 

bnsf971

Roadmaster
Class I railroads were in the passenger rail business, and the way it was at the time it, among other issues, nearly bankrupted them. I do not like passenger railroads the way they currently are in this country. I think nearly everybody will agree the way passenger rail is in this country is not really beneficial to anyone. If passenger rail is going to be done, it should be done properly. If it can't be done properly (decent routes, equipment, and schedules) it should not be done.
What we have now for passenger rail is for all practical purposes useless outside large metropolitan areas. If I wanted to take a train between nearly any major city in the US, I can't. If I can, I have to wait at a deserted station (if what is there can be charitably called that) usually at what seems like 3 am to catch the train. Since almost no one in their right mind would want to get up at 1 am to be driven to a train station and wait until the train shows up. Most stations are in what I would call "not the best part of town", and again most people would rather have a root canal with no anesthetic than go in those areas.
Since freight railroads seem to be at or near capacity, and don't want passenger trains clogging up their tracks, it would mean, in order to again have meaningful passenger rail service in the US, a massive infrastructure building campaign, buying land, laying thousands of miles of dedicated track, hundreds of new locomotives and cars, stations, crews, support staff, maintenance personnel, and a host of things I can't think of off the top of my head.
If the government had the money to do all this, it would probably almost in a single project pull our country out of its current financial problem. If all this happened, we would then have the beginnings of a passenger rail system that might tempt people to ride the train that would rather do so. It would cost trillions of dollars, however...
 

muralist0221

Active Member
Making a comparison between passenger service via Class 1railroads of the 60's and today might not paint an accurate picture. Yes, most passenger trains back then lost money. When the mail contracts came off, that was the last straw.

But at that time, railroads hadn't reinvented themselves. The trucking industry was eating their lunch. The track necessary for a 70 MPH passenger train was incompatible with most of the wheels on the box cars at that time. They were constantly being repaired. The freights were run slow and there was no need for speed. Did all passenger trains lose money? Remember, the railroads had some pretty hokey accounting methods. Many roads charged off freight facilities, stations (which were 50/50 freight passenger) and other costs entirely onto the passenger train.

Ten years ago, Trains Magazine had an article called "The Grinch Who Killed the Zephyrs" about Louis Menk. Menk felt all future freight was going to be moved by truck and saw his executive role as the man who would phase out the CB&Q (including the Great Northern, Northern Pacific & SP&S). He hired a management guru by name of Deming who became famous later in Japan. Deming calculated the real profit/loss of Burlington's passenger trains. About five Zephyrs made money, the rest lost, but not that much.

The passenger train did not bankrupt the railroads, loss of revenue from trucks contributed far more to the "fallen flags".

We have been discussing the limitations of Amtrak on this for some time. In some parts of the country, Amtrak is not an option for the reasons you stated. I suspect $60 billion spent over ten years would go a long way toward upgrading service if it were spent wisely. Soon, there will be no air service to a myriad of smaller cities. Greyhound is a shell of its former self. In other words "no automobile, stay home!"
 

Tower 55

Its DGNO. Not Dingo!
Another thing that I believe MUST be done is for passenger service to stop competing against the automobile. It will never win. So if you cant beat them, join forces. If the airlines can do it, so can rail. For Amtrak to think otherwise is arrogance when Amtrak does nothing to be arrogant about. Offer package deals for rental cars. Lets face, rental car companies arent making swift business either, so combine them on-site, or as close to on-site as possible.
 

Grant

New Member
I'll take a bite at the bait.
The trains primary competitor is, and always be, the car. Even if the train does 220MPH, it still gets its ass kicked by the airplane. Despite what Trains Magazines biased agenda tells you, when the trains in western Europe reach over 200MPH, its only for a short while. Maybe 15 minutes. Its a fairly dense population there hence why they cant get up to the 200+MPH they like to brag about. The ones that do get up to high speed do so because they are essentially traveling through wastelands and areas with small populations.
On short-medium distance European style high speed rail is actually just as fast if not faster than air travel because you don't need to go to an airport in the middle of nowhere and you don't need to wait 2-3 hours to board a train. Unfortunately if America built high speed rail and there was a terror threat, I bet the same style of security would be "necessary" :'( In Europe airlines actually have to charge less than railroad companies to attract passengers. You can blame it on the government's decision to build train stations in the city center and airports in the hinterland, but how easy is it to build an airport in the city center?
 

wigwagfan

Passenger
Greyhound benefits from federal and state money used to maintain roads (and many routes were discontinued when they acquired Trailways, leaving a large number of towns without ANY type of alternative transportation). And airlines, the vast majority do get tax money, for airports and other things, at a considerably higher level than what Amtrak gets.
OK. Where does that tax money come from?

Believe it or not, the feds and states don't get all their money from us poor schmucks. Greyhound pays quite a bit in taxes - here in my home state of Oregon, Greyhound is subject to a weight-mile tax of around 5.8 cents per mile, in addition to paying income taxes, property taxes, registration fees for its buses (many of which are registered in Oregon), tire taxes, and much more. So you're right, the highways are paid for by taxes - which Greyhound pays.

Now, you're also right that Greyhound doesn't cover the whole cost of the highway. Because it's not the sole user. Everyone that uses that road pays a little bit into it. There is no reason why Greyhound should own the road system to itself - that's the beauty of having a public highway system. Anyone who pays the registration fees and taxes can use it at will. And believe it or not - the vast majority of the costs of the highway system are paid for by those taxes charged by road users. In some years, 100% of the costs are covered. (Keep in mind, however, that 20% of the taxes paid into the Highway Trust Fund are siphoned out.) And some states mandate that all of the costs are covered (Oregon is one example, no state income tax dollars go towards highways, but Amtrak gets $5 million a year from income tax dollars. Those counties that fund road improvements through property taxes do so at voter approval - which more often than not passes easily on election day.) Your state may vary, but in Oregon it's quite a fair system.

Finally, your argument against airlines is actually quite incorrect. It is true that the national air traffic control system is fully subsidized - unlike many countries (Canada, in particular) an aircraft does not have to pay a navigation fee just to fly. However, aircraft are subject to all sorts of fees and taxes. Airports, on the other hand, are generally not federally funded - yes, the feds do have an "Airports and Airways Trust Fund" which obtains its funding from aviation taxes, and that trust fund has an incredible pot of cash sitting in it right now. But most airports are funded locally and generally do not run into much opposition from the citizen owners. Most large airports are profitable - my hometown airport, Portland International Airport, is actually so profitable it subsidizes two other airports AND the maritime operations (which receives a tiny amount of property tax revenue as support in addition to PDX's cross-mode support.)

Just fly sometime and see the number of taxes you have to pay on your plane ticket...and ask, why aren't you subject to those same taxes when you ride Amtrak? Who pays for your train station? With only a handful of exceptions - not Amtrak. In some places, the freight railroad still owns the depot; in others it is a government agency. But unlike the airports which charge Passenger Facility Charges, you are subject to no such fee at the train station.

On a per-passenger mile basis, air and auto travellers receive about 1-2 cents in federal subsidy. Through in local support, you MIGHT manage a nickel.

Amtrak gets 40 cents from the federal trough, plus all of the state support which Amtrak counts as "revenue" - so it's likely closer to 50 cents per passenger mile.

The more you dig into Amtrak's costs, the more it is quite evident that its purpose and function is very questionable. For those few areas where there is no alternate transportation and when Amtrak can demonstrate a "needed service", I have no problem funding a coach-only service under contract with the host railroad. (Every single class one railroad, today, operates scheduled passenger trains - the majority of them are under contract to Metra in the Chicago area, but there are others.) If the freight railroad really does not want to provide the service, there are other companies out there who are willing (i.e. those who provide contract commuter train operations). Reservations/Ticketing functions can be centralized; much like the federal government has a single service for making campground reservations across its multiple agencies (National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service - the first two are within Department of Interior, the Forest Service is within Department of Agriculture).

If there is a strong enough need for dining and sleeping car services, such can be contracted out - which is no different than the hotels you find at a National Park. They aren't operated by NPS employees - they are operated, and sometimes owned, by concessionaires (some facilities are owned by the NPS but the concessionaire is responsible for maintenance/upkeep).
 

wigwagfan

Passenger
In some parts of the country, Amtrak is not an option for the reasons you stated. I suspect $60 billion spent over ten years would go a long way toward upgrading service if it were spent wisely. Soon, there will be no air service to a myriad of smaller cities. Greyhound is a shell of its former self. In other words "no automobile, stay home!"
So, we should spend $60 billion to build new raillines to small towns that can't even support a single puddle-jumper flight with just 19 seats on it?

Sorry but at that level, no amount of spending on rail makes sense. Some towns are just so remote, so small, that there are few realistic transportation options. No government agency is obligated to provide transport; if you choose to live in an area that is that remote, you own some responsibility for your choices. If you need transportation assistance, you just have to live where those options are available.

That said, a bus simply makes sense in many areas. Greyhound may not have been able to make it work, but other carriers have. In some states, the state may decide it is worthwhile to provide a subsidy to a carrier on a route. Here in Oregon, ODOT has started for the first time to provide assistance to bus operators through the "POINT" brand (Public Oregon Intercity Transit). Currently there are three operations - the Portland-Astoria route uses full-size Provost coaches; the other two routes in central and southern Oregon use much smaller cutaway buses. And all three of these routes connect with Amtrak trains. (Meanwhile, the Thruway buses that operate Portland-Eugene in conjunction with Amtrak Cascades are actually profitable and pay taxes to the state - they receive ZERO subsidy from Oregon or Amtrak.)

The biggest drawback to bus service right now is that the service is extremely fragmented; there is overlap in many places, and it's hard to tell who offers what services where. But that doesn't mean spend $60 billion on trains - it means figure out our weaknesses, and fix them. Just because Greyhound pulled out of town doesn't always mean that there's no alternative; it might just be that the alternative is running on such a bare-bones budget, that there's ZERO advertising. There's two bus routes that run through my town (in the Portland suburbs) for which there is absolutely no mention of them whatsoever; yet they provide service southwest of here outside of the TriMet district, including service to the Oregon Coast. But good luck figuring out how to board. (One of them boards at an unmarked location on the street just outside the Transit Center.)
 

muralist0221

Active Member
I think we all agree (based on previous blogs from myself and others) that the future of rail passenger service should be between city pairs which have sufficient demand. If revenue between Chicago and Quincy, Illinois drops off, end the service. Forgive me for overstating this. You are also correct that if one chooses to live in West Undershirt, Nevada, the government is under no obligation to provide transporation. I was talking about small towns which already have existing long haul service (Raton, New Mexico, Malta, Montana, etc.).

The idea that food and snack service on Amtrak be contracted out is a possibility. The taxpayers of Kansas City approved a bond of $100 million for KCI airport a few years ago. Not sure what it accomplished other than increasing parking availabilty. KCI is an abomination and sits 25 miles away from downtown. In the three terminals there are numerous independent vendors, Subway, Crispy Creme Donuts, etc. Their prices are exhorbitant, yet they have a captive audience so they do a brisk business. I'm sure these vendors pay excessive rents and pass the high cost on to the traveler. This ties into a previous blog wherein it was suggested that prices be raised for meals on Amtrak. If the captives on the train respond and the revenue exceeds the cost, a private caterer (ala Fred Harvey) could take over and end this issue.

I'd be willing to bet a $3.00 Pepsi cup at KCI airport that given the choice between rail, auto and bus; bus would run a distant third for most travelers.
 

Tower 55

Its DGNO. Not Dingo!
Here's another couple of ideas I've kicked around for a few years.

Instead of having an actual diner car where Amtrak or Class 1s provide the food and service, contract said food and service out. Imagine a diner car staffed by say Chili's, or IHOP, etc? The railroads wont have to supply the people or the food, just the car, and service. Said restaurants would simply bid on the train they want to be a part of.

Also imagine a 7-11 or QuikTrip on your train. Got a hankering for a Slurpee, QT's badass hot dogs? Need a paper?
 




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