I submitted this article to "USA Today" for possible use in its op-ed section. I share it here now since the newspaper passed on it.
By Ellis B. Simon
Forty-five years ago, Amtrak, a creation of the federal government, took over operation of the nation’s money-losing intercity passenger trains from the private railroad industry. It was this country’s last major act of national passenger rail policy. While other industrialized nations embraced rail as a vital component of their transportation infrastructures, the USA stepped back.
Amtrak, at its core, is an operator of passenger trains, not a developer of a passenger rail network. Its last significant expansion was the electrification and upgrade of the Boston – New Haven line and the introduction of the high-speed Acela service in 2000. Its last long-distance start-up was the Auto Train between Virginia and Florida, begun in 1983 to replace a privately operated service that shut down in 1981. Amtrak today operates fewer overnight long-distance trains today than it did in 1971.
The expansion of U.S. intercity rail that has occurred has been largely regional and driven by states, such as California, Washington, North Carolina and Illinois, that have adopted rail but taken an incremental approach to its development. As a result, there is good service between such city pairs as Raleigh – Charlotte and Portland – Seattle but not on comparable routes such as Cleveland – Cincinnati or Atlanta – Nashville.
This happened because the federal government abrogated rail development to the states. Instead, Uncle Sam chose to play the role of banker. Through the Federal Railroad Administration, it helps finance projects but limits what actually gets built by imposing lengthy review processes and equipment and infrastructure requirements that add to project costs. Then, states must then use Amtrak to run the service and reimburse its operating losses.
The fragmented approach is also subject to the whims of state policy makers. For example, in 2011, newly elected Republican Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio and Rick Scott of Florida killed rail projects in their states and turned back federal funds to help build them.
Earlier, New Hampshire withdrew from a three-state partnership to develop a federally designated high-speed rail line from Boston to Montreal. Now, Massachusetts and Vermont are studying the feasibility of such service via Springfield, Mass., an 80-mile detour.
Even though high-speed rail projects are currently underway or planned in California, Florida and Texas, intercity passenger rail will not play a significant role in the U.S. transport system until the federal government steps into the engineer’s seat and drives its development, as it did with the Interstate Highway System. This requires new thinking about the government’s role in the development, financing, operation and maintenance of the rail system and it requires leadership from the White House and Congress.
Working in collaboration with the states and other stakeholders, the federal government should lead the decision making about where trains will travel, how they will operate and who will build, manage and maintain the infrastructure and rolling stock. To the extent practical, the process should promote interconnectivity and expand access to the network. Additionally, Uncle Sam should work with universities and the private sector to build this nation’s knowledge base in order to efficiently design, build, equip, operate and maintain an expanded and enhanced state-of-the-art system.
Amtrak, as a corporate entity with 45 years’ experience operating passenger trains across the country, can be expected to play a significant role in this future system by capitalizing on its core competencies. But allowing it a de facto monopoly could stifle efficiency and innovation. New entrants to the market, including freight railroads, should be encouraged to bid on operating franchises.
Since Amtrak commenced operations in 1971, the U.S. population grew by 55.4 percent to an estimated 322.8 million people. While Amtrak’s ridership nearly doubled over this period and it now carries more than 30 million passengers annually, passenger rail needs to expand significantly if it is to relieve a congested highway system that has become increasingly costly to maintain. With the population expected to reach 438 million by 2050 and the effects of climate change making greenhouse gas reduction an imperative, the need to grow rail is becoming more urgent.
Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have statements in their campaign platforms promising to invest in passenger rail if elected President. The presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, also would “fund and rebuild U.S. infrastructure, including its crumbling railways.” However, past presidential promises to support rail have come up short. Uncle Sam must move from being an investor to becoming an Empire Builder if the USA is to have a world-class rail network.