by E.C. Fish on June 24, 2002

Leave it to an administration composed of former oil executives to oversee through a program of benign neglect the dismantling of what little remains of the nation’s passenger rail system. While Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta has promised no shutdown in the immediate future, the eradication of what they see as socialized rail has been a major item on the conservative wish list for decades, and fiscal concerns caused by the Bush deficit have given them a marvelous excuse.

Politically speaking, Amtrak’s demise seems all but inevitable. The Amtrak constituency is not what you could call a large one– at a daily ridership of 60,000, irritating the folks for whom Amtrak is a decisive political issue is roughly akin to ticking off one county in the rural Midwest. Worse yet, over half are concentrated in the Boston/ New York/ DC corridor, an area that most of the rest of the country finds oddly distasteful at best. Those who have taken Amtrak outside that corridor have been greeted by a timetable of arrivals and departures that is, to be kind, theoretical at best, and the sort of cheerful bad service that rivals even that of your average airline. In short, Amtrak serves a politically insignificant number of people very badly indeed at great expense, and is, in its current form, clearly doomed.

The problem is that the something that needs to be done about Amtrak needs to be done soon, and by all indications will be done as badly as a dining car salisbury steak by the parties concerned. Merely choking off Amtrak and walking away is not an option. While Amtrak’s daily ridership is small, its closure would affect a much larger network of commuter rail lines that serve hundreds of thousands of people every day. While rail commuting has obtained a sort of club car, upper class image, many people who take the train to work are going from places that they can afford to live but have few jobs to places where studio apartments rent in the upper thousands and there’s a lot of work to do. Along the Eastern seaboard, loss of rail service would have a significant impact on many suburban and exurban communities, some of which might become 21st century ghost towns. While Amtrak’s continued funding may be amazingly costly, the social displacement involved in its sudden disappearance could be even costlier.

Such concerns are likely to get little play from a White House not philosophically disposed to weighing the human factors over the political ones. In fact, Amtrak itself has gotten little play from the White House, with Mineta delivering the official responses and the President’s own statements on the topic have been limited to second hand quotations supposedly delivered in a conversation between President Bush and an obscure member of Congress, who immediately held a press conference to deliver a sort of noncontroversial, noncommittal non statement expressing vague support that sounded suspiciously like a less detailed version of Mineta’s already nonspecific official line.

The few specifics floated thus far, all of which have been couched as mere suggestions, have included privatization (which in Republican administrations generally means the surrendering of publicly owned resources to the politically well connected for prices well below their actual value), and placing more funding demands on the states, most of which are in worse fiscal shape than the federal government already. Of course, any reform solution that actually worked would preclude the one that best suits the administration’s existing policies on energy and the environment– putting Amtrak’s riders and the Amtrak affiliates’ displaced commuters into SUVS, minivans, and small pick-ups and having them drive to work.

It is hardly an original suggestion. The senseless, wasteful way we use transportation in the United States circa 2002 isn’t an accident, and in no way could be construed as the result of the exercise of free choice and free enterprise. It is instead the result of a concerted effort in the last century by the oil, automotive, and road construction industries, an effort that included buying up large chunks of urban rail and tramway infrastructure for the purpose of shutting down the competition and lobbying relentlessly and successfully for construction of the interstate highway system, which by the mid twentieth century had all but killed off long distance passenger rail in most of the country. With the corporate grandchildren of these very interests already exercising enough influence on the current administration to require congressional investigative committees and the occasional subpoena, a policy bias in favor of even more cars driving on even more roads is to be expected. The social and environmental consequences of that bias are of far less interest to them than the bottom lines and political contributions of the companies involved.

Maybe I’m selling the President short, though. It’s entirely possible that he might take an active interest in Amtrak’s future. After all, having already established a secretive domestic security apparatus at home and a stated policy of military belligerence abroad, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see him take a crack at making the trains run on time.

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