Derailing Amtrak

By Baker, Linda | Sierra, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Derailing Amtrak


Baker, Linda, Sierra


Congress spends billions on roads while trains go begging

poised to launch the first high-speed train project in the United States, the nation's passenger railroad is nevertheless on the verge of derailing. Decades of underfunding forced Amtrak to cut 42 routes in 1996 and brought it to the brink of bankruptcy in 1997. This year has not been much easier. At the same time that Congress and the Clinton administration were preparing to fork over $28 billion to the highway industry as part of the recently passed 1999 transportation bill, Amtrak was being forced to justify its very existence. Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) requested that Amtrak be denied all funding, except in the busy Northeast corridor. Train supporters rallied, and at presstime the Senate had budgeted $555 million for capital improvements, and the House, $609 million. But that's approximately one-third the amount (adjusted for inflation) the railroad received 20 years ago. For the first time in Amtrak's history, it will receive no operating assistance from the federal government.

"Congress is starving Amtrak when it should be nurturing it," says John Holtzclaw, chair of the Sierra Club Transportation Committee. Most transportation research shows that high-speed rail transit provides a safer, more efficient, and more environmentally responsible alternative to increasing road capacity. A report released last winter by Northwest Environment Watch, for example, confirms that cars and light trucks are the number-one source of greenhouse gases in the Pacific Northwest. Trains are 15 times more efficient per passenger than the average automobile, and emit less pollution per rider-mile than cars, planes, and buses.

Still, Amtrak critics point to the railroad's financial woes and declare that railways are uncompetitive. "There is no more reason for taxpayers to subsidize Amtrak than there is for taxpayers to provide subsidies to ... vacation cruise lines," sniffed a Cato Institute report last year. What Cato neglects to mention is that all transportation systems depend on hefty subsidies. This year, for example, the Senate budgeted almost $10 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration--twice the amount budgeted for public transit and more than ten times the amount budgeted for rail. …

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