Common-Sense Train Solutions   Leave a comment

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) suggested the United States should take “baby steps” toward privatization of rail service in Amtrak’s northeast corridor.

Shuster said he will not push for complete Amtrak privatization, like his predecessor, Rep. John Mica (R-Pa.), but he would look for opportunities to introduce private companies to the northeast, which is Amtrak’s most profitable corridor.

“We’re not at the point where we’re going to have two competing companies on the line on the northeast corridor,” Shuster said. “[There are] baby steps we have to take to bring the private sector into the operations of it, whether it’s operating the equipment, whether it’s operating the personnel on the train that sell the tickets … there’s lot different ways to do it to bring the private sector in.” The private sector is interested in operating rail service in densely populated areas of the U.S. like the northeast.

“If you look what’s happening in Europe today, the EU has mandated that on every passenger rail, there has to be competition,” he said. “So our friends in Europe have figured out the magic of competition and what it can do to improve all different types of industries.”

Congressional lawmakers are expected to consider a Passenger Rail Investment and Act (PRIIA), which is the bill that traditionally authorizes Amtrak’s funding. Amtrak usually receives about $1 billion annually in subsidies from the federal government. It would take time to disengage from such a huge budget, but it’s entirely possible to do so, if Congress will plan long term for it.

In an era of shrinking budgets and the reality of the federal debt, the only real solution for Amtrak’s survival is privatization and the Northeast Corridor is a good starting point because it is profitable. Private operators, who could negotiate on wages and other costs, would be free to serve those routes that attract the most passengers rather than the ones that are backed by the most political muscle.

Privatizing Amtrak doesn’t mean an end to all long-distance passenger trains either, though it probably means an end to some. And, I am not necessarily opposed to government owning the tracks and even the trains themselves, though I believe the trains should be leased to the operating companies and track access provided by competitive bid. Limited government does not mean no government and a case can be made for public ownership of the tracks.

As a lover of trains, I personally wouldn’t object to my passenger car being linked to freight cars for a long distance route cross-country. Freight would make the trip affordable and profitable at the same time. I would enjoy the stops along the way, similar to the stops the Alaska Marine Highway makes going through the Inside Passage. Private railroads would be more likely to develop innovations that will attract new riders – like reinstituting sleeper cars so passengers can enjoy the slower pace of the freight train. Amtrak’s California trains are some of the poorest performers in the Amtrak system. Daily long-distance trains in the West could probably be replaced by weekly and/or seasonal cruise trains.

When Canada stopped running trains from Vancouver to Banff and Calgary, a private company called the Rocky Mountaineer entered the market with cruise trains and now offers four different routes. Such cruise trains typically operate only about once a week and are aimed at completely different markets from Amtrak.

And, that may well be the point. People in the Midwest and West like their cars and the independence that comes with it. They are unlikely to commute via train, but they may be willing to vacation by riding the rails. Amtrak can’t do it affordably, but Holland America might.

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