Critics ignore Amtrak’s value for commuters, travelers

In America, talking about rail subsidies is a rather polarizing argument. One one hand, you’ll get those who think we ought to have a more European or Japanese model, favoring more extensive subsidies for higher speed rail service between major metropolitan areas. On the other hand, you’ll get staunch critics who favor privatization or even absolute dissolution rather than spend the $1 billion-plus each year in subsidies. Personally, I fall in the latter cat­egory, and it isn’t just because I hate driving. Rail subsidies are not as bad some may make it out to be, and could be essential in offering more ecological and efficient ways to travel between cities, improve local and regional rail services, and ultimately get America out of its plane and car-centric lifestyle.

These thoughts come to mind on the heels of a recent report by one of Amtrak’s adviso­ry committees, which recommended neces­sary repairs and capital projects in Amtrak’s busiest region: the Northeast Corridor. Lo­cated right here in a route stretching from Boston to Washington D.C., Amtrak’s woes involve not bullet trains, but essential bridg­es and tunnels.

Frankly, Amtrak isn’t sure where the mon­ey will come to pay for these improvements, which include 100-year old tunnels beneath New York’s Hudson River and a 100-year old bridge crossing the Connecticut River on the path toward Boston. As you may notice, this infrastructure is old—really old—and was built by long-defunct railroad companies during the golden age of rail travel. But now, no one wants to pick up the tab (CityLab, “8 Critical rail projects that Amtrak cannot af­ford,” 04.21.15 ).

These concerns also come alongside an active, ongoing debate to electrify more Am­trak routes and expand high speed rail ser­vices nationwide. Some projects are modest, such as a plan to electrify the Albany-New York route that passes through Poughkeep­sie.

Other, more ambitious ideas call for the creation of a new, 17,000 mile high speed corridor that connects the entire country by 2030. The U.S. High Speed Rail Association primarily advocates this project, however, online rail fans have also published websites and interesting infographics about the topic. It seems like an almost crazy idea, but at the very least it wants to put high speed rail in America back on the table.

But pie in the sky ideas like a national high speed rail system are even farther away when you realize just how problematic Amtrak funding is in the status quo. The Northeast Corridor is Amtrak’s only profitable route, meaning it requires no annual subsidies to operate. However, no one is stepping up to contribute to the $4 billion budget CityLab notes as necessary to keep the Northeast Corridor in operation.

What this often bridges into is a long, still-ongoing debate about subsidizing public transit in the United States. However, Criti­cizing rail subsidies is a fallacy as great as Romney’s 2012 war on Big Bird. Many point to the $1 billion subsidy rail passengers re­ceive each year, but in reality the cost is less than that of subsidies the federal gov­ernment spends on roads each year. Accord­ing to The Economist, the U.S. government subsidies about $0.439 for each mile of track, while spending a slightly higher $0.447 for each mile of road (“Road v. train: Amtrak’s true costs,” 11.07.11).

Some may claim that it’s unfair to claim the limited rail routes in operation to the massive system we call the Highway Inter­state system. Technically speaking, these critics are not wrong. However, there’s no argument why or why not Amtrak cannot appropriately scale, if given a larger track system, to provide equal or better service for the same subsidy. Just as Amtrak is a loss-leader on long-haul routes between Cal­ifornia and Chicago, not all Interstates are worth their existence.

Still, when we add up everything. We can’t however pick and choose what’s worth keeping for essential intercity rail services, as that defeats the entire purpose for such a public service. The goal of public transit and a national system of roads and railways is to facilitate the fundamental way we’ve done business for decades.

Such criticisms of Amtrak also fail to in­corporate how different tracks are used in comparison to roads. We subsidize Amtrak to keep train ticket prices down, not pad any­one’s pockets over at the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. But roads are mean­while funded through myriad other expens­es beyond direct and indirect subsidies. The Economist’s report does not compare the gas tax or other vehicle taxes to fund state and federal road projects. Other than charging freight operators, passengers will need to use Amtrak or a state commuter rail service to use the rails we subsidize. It’s far different than getting on a Greyhound, in a car, or in a truck. This makes it much easier for crit­ics to target Amtrak as a wasteful line on the U.S. annual budget.

Amtrak can only source federal subsidies and ticket revenues, leaving far fewer ways to generate revenue for its operations. This money goes toward the Highway Trust Fund used for primarily new road constructions. Amtrak receives some of this money for its capital projects, but hardly as much as what state and federal highway agencies receive. In any case, the money that Amtrak receives is a fraction that we spend on maintain­ing the thousands of miles of pavement we maintain for all our cars and trucks. This isn’t even including all the extra money we spend subsidizing air travel in our post Sept. 11 world, either.

Perhaps what fuels this hatred of rail is that historically railroad services used to be profitable industries. But this was more than 70 years ago, in a time before planes and roads alike. But what hasn’t changed is the infrastructure we use in rail systems. The vast majority of Amtrak’s system are tracks, bridges and tunnels privately built more than a century ago. It’s a miracle that the tunnels beneath New York City survived not just all these years of service, but also the wake of Hurricane Sandy and other natural disasters. But rather than implement essential, imme­diate improvements to our rail infrastructure that are long overdue.

Amtrak isn’t the only one that suffers from these ignored improvements either. The tun­nels beneath New York City, for example, are owned by Amtrak but are shared with both the Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit companies, both state-funded and subsidized transit agencies. These commut­er rail companies rent usage of these tun­nels, but neither state is jumping up to offer any funds to replace these ancient systems, which simultaneously cause much conges­tion given record ridership in the New York Metropolitan area.

Amtrak was given ownership of these tun­nels after the collapse of the Penn Central railroad way back in the 1970s. We seem to underestimate how essential this infrastruc­ture has become in the daily lives for mil­lions of commuters in New York and New Jersey. Still, that doesn’t stop politicians from complaining about how and why we continue to subsidize intercity rail, not re­alizing how much of a connection it has to commuter rail.

With all these things said, I find it deeply concerning how much we ignore our rail in­frastructure. This is in a way not even about the economic or ecological benefits of pas­senger rail. We seem to misunderstand fun­damentally that rail is not simply something you can, with the wave of a magic wand, pri­vatize and remove from the federal budget. All in all, we’re dealing with just 1.5 billion out of 3.9 trillion, equating just 0.0004 per­cent of the federal budget. It wouldn’t make a dent in any part of our many expenses to run the U.S. government.

With even my biases aside, millions of people each year depend on some aspect of Amtrak’s services or infrastructure. It would be foolish to ignore Amtrak’s value to ma­jor metropolitan regions like New York City, Washington D.C. and Boston is far greater than the mere $1.5 billion the government spends each year. The longer we try to ignore necessary infrastructure improvements, the longer we play a dangerous game of chicken with our cities that we will otherwise lose.

—Joshua Sherman ’16 is an English major.


  1. Nice article Josh. However, a little nitpick on one of the most common mistakes in English: the wrong placement of the adverb “only” as in this sentence:

    Amtrak can only source federal subsidies and ticket revenues….

    should read:

    Amtrak can source only federal subsidies…….

  2. Amtrak’s annual budget is 0.04% of the US annual budget, not 0.0004%, a great value since the majority goes to capital projects and a minority goes to operating subsidies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *