Friday, August 30, 2002

Amtrak, the Damned Track


Commercial aircraft is becoming a lousy way to get from city to city, but it's all we have in most instances and that's a sad state of affairs for a nation with our inventiveness.

Amtrak doesn't work (duh!) because it's just another government subsidized boondoggle. Rail freight works and is profitable, because it's private and serves markets. Eisenhower's Interstate Highway program works because it opened up the country to automobile transportation, as well as trucks and commerce and private individuals wanted both. The legacy (at least part of it) has been congestion as well as expansion.

The time has come when the public interest is served by high speed rail. But Amtrak isn't the right solution and further money spent on a failed system will only make it a more expensive failed system. We might better spend our capital combining Eisenhower's highway system and modern bullet trains to solve an actual need.

I recently asked a friend how long it took him on a business trip to get to Cleveland from Chicago by air. About an hour flight he told me, but I meant how long did it take him to get from his office on Michigan Avenue to his company's branch office in downtown Cleveland. He looked a little chagrined and told me well, you know how it is, he had to catch a two o'clock flight and who knows how long it'll take to O'Hare by cab that time of day? He left the office about quarter past twelve, got to Cleveland at three o'clock and then it took forty minutes from their airport. About three and a half hours, office to office and a couple of expensive cab fares.

That trip would take less than two hours by bullet train, direct from downtown to downtown with a nice leisurely lunch on the train and a little time to unwind or get his head together for his meeting.

But of course there is no bullet train.

Japan has one and so does France. People with more vision than we have are beginning to look at old systems with an eye toward new technology. There's been debate about high speed trains in America as well, but experts worry about dangerous grade crossings and such. If a train hits a stalled truck on a crossing every once in a while these days at relatively slow speeds, they ask us to imagine that happening at two hundred miles an hour.

But there is no need for grade crossings, that part's easy. We already have an interstate highway system that connects every decent sized city in the country and there are no grade crossings. The interstate network has a median strip the whole way, a median more than sufficient to accommodate a bullet train. That lovely green strip has already been bought and paid for and the interstate system goes downtown to downtown, city center to city center at easily over two hundred miles an hour.

Why aren't we doing it, other than cost? For the most part, we're not doing it because the automobile lobby is invested in building cars and the airlines see it as competition. The oil companies have their interests. A lot of powerful legislators feed at the trough of the automobile, airline and oil companies. In addition, the government-run Amtrak hasn't done much for the reputation of trains, souring Washington as well as the traveling public.

Instead of confrontation, we should find a way to get the automobile companies behind high-speed rail, as well as the airlines and oil companies We need to find a way for them to profit by rail transport and then we will find ourselves at the beginning of a creative, rather than a confrontational dialog.

I propose as an example, that GM and Ford and Chrysler would be happy to build locomotives, and operate the maintenance facilities. Perhaps Boeing and McDonnell Douglas would profit from the building and maintenance of rail passenger cars. The heavy-construction and roadbuilding industries would compete for infrastructure contracts as they did in the fifties under Eisenhower. Perhaps the airlines would be both capable and interested in operating the system, bidding for routes and cross ticketing air and rail passengers. It's not in the public or their corporate interest for them be so heavily invested in flying people anyway. They ought better to see themselves in the transportation business, however that's most efficiently and profitably done.

I believe it's a matter of finding a process, whereby a better way to do something doesn't have to damage an industry, but encourages them to modify their businesses plans and profit in other ways.

It's a big job and will require a major capital investment,but it's peanuts compared to the investment made in the interstates and President Eisenhower got that accomplished in the fifties and sixties. Capital was short then as well, capital markets are always tight, but he did it with bond issues and the justification of national defense, because national defense was a popular issue back then. Yet the thing that made it work, the force that drove the legislation, was the enormous profit to be made by road contractors and the potential for automobile and gasoline sales.

Today the environment is the hot issue, as well as the cost and inconvenience of getting from Chicago to Cleveland. A consensus can be built around that, if we let potential profits lead the way and get the airlines, auto companies, brokerage houses and construction industry behind it.

It has been a mistake to push public transport without public support and Amtrak's proved that. We need to lay the problem before the opponents of high-speed rail and help them find a profit in it.

Perhaps then they will lobby the congress for high speed rail instead of constantly against it.