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The transportation bill would move Amtrak in the right direction

Washington, December 9, 2015 | Justin Harclerode (202) 225-9446 | comments
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The transportation bill would move Amtrak in the right direction
By: Editorial Board

DEEP IN the transportation bill Congress passed last week is a seemingly small but possibly critical change in funding for Amtrak, the country’s national passenger rail service. Lawmakers want to separate the budget for routes along the popular Northeast Corridor from the rest of the network. Any operating profits Amtrak makes on the Northeast route, which people actually use, would be reinvested there rather than going to prop up lines elsewhere. Advocates for maintaining lines serving little-used stations between the coasts may balk. But this reform is long overdue.

U.S. geography differs from that of, say, the Netherlands, and rail may not make much sense in vast swaths of the country’s lightly populated hinterlands. But it is a must-have for the urban zone from Washington to Boston. Just three cities — Washington, Philadelphia and New York — account for nearly a third of Amtrak’s passengers. Seventy-seven percent of all rail and air travel between the District and New York is on Amtrak. The Northeast Corridor posts an operating profit of about $400 million.

Keeping the Northeast Corridor and the rest of the national network on the same account has forced popular routes to subsidize less popular ones. This partially explains the sorry state of even Amtrak’s most critical lines. A northbound train derailed in Philadelphia in May because required safety upgrades had not been completed. A couple of months later, electrical problems in two aging tunnels under the Hudson River snarled train traffic. The tunnels need to be overhauled or replaced. When Northeast Corridor train service shuts down, the country loses roughly $100 million a day in economic activity. Even Acela service, Amtrak’s premier product, is “high-speed” only relative to the lumbering pace of other U.S. trains.

Segregating the Northeast Corridor’s budget from the rest of the system’s will not be a cure-all. For one thing, the transportation bill gives Amtrak some flexibility to transfer money between accounts as long as it gets permission from its governing board and notifies Congress, so there’s still some opportunity for Amtrak to force Northeastern rail passengers to subsidize others.

Moreover, rail travel is an expensive service, even where demand is high. The Northeast Corridor faces high costs, such as for those Hudson River tunnels, that federal and local governments will probably have to help pay.

But making the Northeast Corridor more independent and self-sustaining should focus improvements on where they are most needed and, in the long term, open the way for more public and private investment.


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