Culture, Global, Politics

Routing Amtrak

amtrak.jpgIt seems to me that with our current and future energy crisis (there is an ever-increasing Chinese and Indian demand for oil, from the same not so friendly sources) we should be making sure to expand mass transit, including the currently under-funded Amtrak, in terms of improving the quality of service and the infrastructure to do so.
But despite much touted energy reform, this is not happening.  In fact, things are getting worse.  This past Thursday, 50,000 passengers between New York and Maryland experienced a black out, and were stranded. For hours.
The NY Times notes,

Although it’s not clear exactly what went wrong with the system, the underpinnings of the nation’s railroad system are primed for disaster. The White House and Congress have tried to squeeze every dollar out of Amtrak’s meager budget. To survive, the nation’s passenger railroad has cut service and raised ticket prices. But what really frightens the rail experts is how little federal money has been available to update the railroad’s aging infrastructure. One inspector general for the Department of Transportation warned that the budget for basic maintenance and improvements was so low that Congress and the White House were playing “Russian roulette” with the welfare of millions of riders across the country.
Amtrak would need at least $2 billion a year to bring the system to a state of good repair, according to the department’s analysts. For the Northeast Corridor, where some parts go back to the 1930’s, it would take a total of about $4 billion. So far, Congress and the White House have agreed to hand over a scant $600 million a year for all capital programs on passenger rails from coast to coast.
Washington power brokers like to say that Amtrak is mismanaged, but calling for better management of a system where the wires and steel are eroding is simply dodging the question.

What is revealing is that even now, with much talk about energy reform, the question of increasing mass transit is still not even addressed.  This is not just a “dodge,” it is an elephant in the room that is not only not mentioned, but perhaps truly not seen.  Many are obviously still not convinced that there is a real need to have safe, speedy, and subsidized mass transit systems, not even the critical line that runs to and from the nation’s capital to the nation’s financial center.
This is happening because those of us who do understand this are not prioritizing it.  We have failed.  Not the obtuse.  They don’t get it because we haven’t made them get it.
We have to accept that.  And we need to start fighting for things that we can change.  Not just point at and mope about things we can’t change until the House or Senate changes, and possibly not until the next administration.
But with growing acceptance and concern over our energy crisis, as well as the stall on Monday, we should take the opportunity to champion our national railroad, and hit hard now. 
From there, we expand the issue to improving and expanding local mass transit systems.
And then we fight for creating new ones. 

11 thoughts on “Routing Amtrak

  1. Perhaps the reason that Amtrak is so inefficient, does not offer good service, and is constantly losing money is that the US govt constantly bails it out. Reminds me of the T in Boston. It just keeps sucking money in and never becomes profitable….Maybe it needs to be split up and run by individual companies…
    And what’s this have to do with jewish topics…

  2. Robbie, you wrote,
    “It just keeps sucking money in and never becomes profitable.”
    There should not be the same demand for profitablity, since people benifit from mass transit who don’t even use is, because of les traffic and better air quality. They should pay in terms of subsidy.
    You wrote,
    “And what’s this have to do with jewish topics?”
    1) Jew York City. Amtrak’s health will affect New York, the center of the Diaspora.
    2) Little Israel — Oil has had a deletrious effect on Israel’s ability to negotiate since Roosevelt promised the Saudis he would scuttle the plans for a Jewish state. Wanna help the Jewish state? Get the world off oil. Can’t do that without mass transit as part of the equation.

  3. 1. New York is not the center of the diaspora. The whole point of the diaspora is that there is no center of Jewish life other than the homeland. Sure, there are places with LOTS of jews, but i would say a lot of my E European or Indian jewish friends would be quite annoyed hearing some american call new york the center of the diaspora…
    2. There is a difference between subsidizing prohibitive track upgrade costs (which the govt should do, as is done in Japan) and pumping money into the management and maintenance of a company that constantly fails. Amtrak gets bailed out constantly, so it does not have the initiative to be efficient and run a good service. Japanese rail companies are private entities, that besides from infrastructure costs, do not receive govt subsidies, and the mass transit there runs beautifully.
    3. New York City transit is profitable and is very efficient.

  4. Robbie, I am not claiming New York is one thing. I am remarking about what it is to the Jewish people.
    If they want to overhaul Amtrak, fine. But do not starve it to death. That is not the answer, that is not what we need.

  5. And what’s this have to do with jewish topics…
    Well, as for what it has to do with Jewish topics, I’d say that there are a number of reasons why environmental protection is a Jewish concern. DK has also pointed to others in the other pieces to which he links.
    But I’d like to the rest of your comment. When the US government has been giving Amtrak less money than it needs for several years, I find it hard to accept the idea that feds are bailing it out. Moreover, this is based on the idea that passenger rail should be a self-sufficient, independent business. Would you also say that all roads should be privately owned and subsidized by tolls rather than being “bailed out” by federal highway funds as well as state and local taxes? Unless we’re taking that position, I’d say that rail, which provides far more environmental benefits, is more than a worthy public investment.
    You also point to the T in Boston, which caught my attention, as a daily T commuter. Are you a fellow Bostonian? If so, always good to see one on here!
    You suggest that the T “just keeps sucking money in and never becomes profitable.” Again, the T is a public good which benefits far more people than it’s users. Can you imagine what traffic in Boston would be like without the T? Or what air pollution would be like if the average 792,600 one-way trips each day were taken by car?
    What’s more, the T’s funding has actually gone down in recent years, creating funding problems (which hurt service and thus may actually depress ridership). Under the “Forward Funding” plan set forth in 1999, according to the Boston Phoenix,
    …the T was put on a sort of fixed income. It now receives 20 percent of most sales-tax receipts across the state, plus a levy from the cities and towns served by the system.
    And as sales tax revenues have gone down, in part due to internet purchasing, T funding has gone down. This doesn’t sound to me like a system that “keeps sucking money in”–it sounds like a system that’s being starved. And so the T is now proposing its second fare hike in three years.
    For those from Massachusetts who are concerned about this, please consider signing this petition and this one about this absurd funding plan and the proposed fare hike. Robbie, I hope you’ll consider signing as well, though I realize that our views differ on this.

  6. I am a long time LONG distance Amtrak user. I ride Amtrak in sleeping cars from Texas to NY, to FL to NM.
    Why? I am terrified of flying. I used to fly all the time…had too many horrible , turbulent rides, had a client who died in TWA 800, then 911. I developed a real phobia…this is my problem, no one elses. I don’t expect tax payers to pay for my train ticket…
    However…how much govvy money is spent on Airport subs, who pays for the roads for people to travel on etc.
    Amtrak trains are run so poorly because of gvt. red tape. When I take the east-west train through Houston, I have waited hours in the middle of no-where because the freight trains have the right of way. They are in no hurry too. The North-South trains out of New Orleans run great…the crew is excellent.
    Amtrak employees are a mix..some the typicla govt. employee you have to fight with at the DMV, post office etc…no hurry to help you. Then some, like the car attendants are most helpful as they rely on tips.
    Most people can’t appreciate Amtrak for long distances. If you look at the people who were trapped on 9-12 in distant cities, Amtrak was a savior.
    Amtrak however is awesome as it is a romantic way to travel, eat in the dining car, sleep to the clickity clack of the wheels, become a member of the 50 mile an hour club!
    Not sure what this has to do with jewish stuff, but just wante dto give my .02 about how I love Amtrak.

  7. Yes, I live in Boston. The T is horribly run. The green line never comes and half the time, when it does, it’s too crowded for people getting on through the front door, so the driver opens all the doors and no one has to pay. Maybe the T should figure out a way to fix that one instead of the proposed fare hike: there is most likely going to be a fare hike to 1.70 if you use the soon (?) to be released CharlieCard, and 2.20 if you pay cash. Ever goto Tokyo? There are several companies there that run some competing lines. It is amazing, clean, and more efficient than Swiss trains.
    Also, I’m not saying the US govt should not subsidize rails, they shouldnt however subsidize Amtrak. What you propose above is the equivelant to the govt subsidizing Greyhound and Fung-Wah buses. Of course the govt should pay for roads and rail infrastructure, but they shoouldnt subsidize the companies that use that infrastructure…Roads and tracks are prohibitive costs for a company and that’s why trucking and shipping companies aren’t expected to build private roads. Just like the roads, rail infrastructure should be partially built with public money BUT companies who use them should be privately run and should not expect govt money…
    And DK you write “Robbie, I am not claiming New York is one thing. I am remarking about what it is to the Jewish people”…what the hell does that mean? New York is not the center of the diaspora to the Jewish people-it is anything to the jewish people…It is a place where a lot of jews live, where you can meet a jewish girl maybe, but dont go saying it is the center of our life in the galut. cause it aint (btw: i hate boston and plan to move back to ny as soon as possible). the view of the galut being centered in the US is just offensive…the whole concept of the galut is that there is no center.
    As for the jewish thing, yeah, u can make the claim that any progressive cause is a jewish cause (environmentalism, human rights, etc…) and i generally agree with that, but i just like to read my jewish blogs for jewish related topics, not for a jew’s opinions on other political causes. anyway, its your blog, but i just feel like its been going downhill lately, lots of people i know who used to read, no longer read it. love the jewish culture and politics stuff though.

  8. I don’t think it’s accurate at all to say that “the whole idea of galut is that it has no center”. The Diaspora/Galut = everywhere not the Homeland.
    In Roman times Babylonia was seen as the Center of the Galut, because it was the location of the most populous and prosperous Jewish community outside Israel. The “Rashei Galvata” (Exilarchs) rules from there. At other times, Alexandria of Egypt was the center of the Diaspora. Even later on, Spain took on that role. I think it’s pretty well-agreed that as NYC is the cultural and numerical center of American Jewry, and since American Jewry is the only Jewish population in the world to rival Israel’s currently, that it’s not entirely unreasonable for someone to claim NYC as the center of the Diaspora.

  9. First, for all the people who bitch about Amtrak and how it’s poorly managed and gives lousy serve, that BS. I’, a frequent rider, I ride the Northeast corridor as well as long-distance trains, and I’m a daily commuter on a system operated by Amtrak, and my experience is that compared to the airlines I fly, their service is at least as good, and sometime better. Considering how they’re constantly shafted by the politciians, who oppose the concept of Amtrak for ideological reasons, I think they do a pretty dammned good job, although, like anything, they aren’t perfect.
    As to why rail doesn’t get the government funding support that every other mode of transportation gets, I would day there are three reasons:
    1) Ideology — cetian right wingers believe that becuase rail has hitorically been funded bt private investment, this should always continue to be the case,
    2) History — In the US rail has always been funded by private investment, and there has been opposition to government funding of funding “internal improvements” since the early days of the country. Especially if thos eimprovements will hurt the economic interests of the currently rich,
    3) Economic interests — We can on;y afford to massively upgrade rail if we cut some of the funding for other transportation mode, mostly highways. Investment in a transportation infreastructure results in a windfall of increased real-estate values in the vicinity of the infrastructure. However, on a rail line these windfalls are “nodal,” they will only occur in the immediate vicinity of the stations, which can’t be placed too close together if one expects the system to function efficiently. With highways on the other hand, every acre of land that’s adjacent to the highway can be developed for maximum proffit (take a drive on route 17 in north Jersey or Loop 410 around San Antonio to see what I mean). So real estate specukatiors and rural landowners whould definitely perefer that highways and private cars be the transportation mode of choice, event hough it causes the most popllution, wastes the most oil, and rapes the land.
    So there are verypowerful interests opposed to increasinginvestment in rail, and all the talk about how government rail investment is “mismanaged” is just a smokescreen for the Highway lobby and its allies to ocntinue business as usual.

  10. My main problrem with Amtrak, BTW (and the commuter line I use) is that
    (1) there aren’t enough trains on some lines (which makes it hard to pratcially plan a trip — you try riding a train from Pittsburgh to Cleveland — the only one available leaves at midnight and gets in a 2 AM)
    (2) On time performance on the long-distance routes sucks (they rent track rights from the freight railroads- some, like BNSF, are cooperative and helpful, others, like Union Pacific, find passenger trains to be a nuisances, and let them sit and get felayed). There’s a terrible capacity problem for frieght railroads as well, and we proably need some government funding to get more frieght out of the 18-wheeler trucks and onto trains.
    (3) Onboard food service is getting the shaft too, it’s considered to be a “frill,” but for amost rips over 2-3 hours, that’s not true. (BTW, this is a problem with airlines as well, Curse you Southwest airlines! When you’re taking a trip with a 2-3 hour flying time, you’re actually travelling a good part of the day, includsing getting to the airport, checking in securitym, etc, and most trips include mealtimes, and with the current “no-frills” service, running arounf making alternative arrnagements adds to the stress of the trip. Back in the good old days, even though the plastic airline food left something to be desired on the cuinary front, at least it was one less thing you had to worry about on your trip.

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