For the Sake of the Planet, Privatize Amtrak

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Dean Baker
Truthout, April 23, 2007

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Al Gore and the world's scientists have finally managed to convince most of the public that global warming is real and that we have to do something about it. Unfortunately, at this point the politicians are still abstractly talking about doing "something" as opposed to being concrete about steps we can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Pleas for individuals to be more conservation-minded are nice, but the point is to implement policies that will stop global warming, not find ways for people to feel good about themselves.)

One item that should be near the top of anyone's list is promoting intercity train travel. The reason is simple: train travel is far more energy efficient than plane or car travel. If we can get car drivers and airplane passengers into trains, we can have substantial cuts in emissions.

While we are unlikely to have people taking trains from coast to coast, there is no reason that a large portion of intercity travel cannot be done by train. Europe and Japan have had trains that travel 180 miles per hour for more than a quarter century. At that speed, the travel time from New York City to Chicago is 4.5 hours. This is very competitive with a two-hour plane flight that requires an hour of advanced check-in, plus commutes to and from suburban airports. For shorter trips, such as travel between major cities on the east coast, fast trains would almost certainly be faster than planes. This means we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save time on our travel.

But instead of expanding and improving, our rail system is sinking further into a rut. Most regions of the country have no serious passenger train system, and even the Northeast corridor between Washington and Boston - the one area that actually does have reasonably good train service - is seeing the quality of its service deteriorate in recent years.

The basic problem is that it would take a large capital investment to get the train system up to speed. To effectively use high speed trains, it is necessary to lay or relay track and restructure roadbeds to ensure that they can safely accommodate trains running at 170-180 miles per hour. The Acela trains now running in the Northeast corridor actually have a maximum speed of 150 miles per hour. However, they can only attain this speed for a small portion of their routes because the track and roadbeds are not in good enough condition.

Amtrak, as a public corporation, cannot simply go out and borrow the tens of billions of dollars that would be needed to modernize its tracks. Such a move would have to be authorized by Congress. This is why Amtrak needs to be privatized. Anyone who has taken Amtrak and flown on the airlines in the last few years knows that privately run companies don't have any obvious advantages in efficiency. (Ask the Jet Blue hostages, who sat on runways for hours last winter, about the efficiency of the private sector.)

But the private sector does have one big advantage over public corporations: they can lobby Congress. When the airlines took a big hit after the September 11 attacks, their lobbyists wasted no time in running to Congress and procuring a $5 billion handout from the government. The airlines could do this because they spend millions of dollars buying presidential candidates and members of Congress. This meant that when disaster hit, they could count on a serious payback.

Until the trains are also run by greedy sleaze buckets who can buy their own political influence, train travel doesn't have a prayer. Who's going to lobby for it, the environmental groups?

There will certainly be problems associated with privatizing Amtrak. At the top of the list is the state of its current workforce, which would come under attack from private owners. But the best route would be to try to secure the protection of workers as much as possible in a transition, not leave our train system to deteriorate even further.

It's unfortunate that US politics are in their current state, but ignoring reality is not a serious political strategy. If train travel is ever going to get the government support it needs to become competitive, it will need some powerful actors to push its case. This means having private corporations run the train system.


Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer (www.conservativenannystate.org). He also has a blog, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues. You can find it at the American Prospect's web site.