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Forbes on High Speed Rail


The second premise of the article entitled "Forbes On High Speed Rail" -- that "...long distance trains are inevitable losers" -- reflects a narrow business perspective that is an inappropriate measure of transportation's value to society. Implicit in the comment is the dubious notion that other forms of passenger transportation are profiable. No less an expert than Warren Buffett has acknowledged that the commercial aviation industry has not made a true profit in its entire history. No one's private automobile makes a profit as a transportation provider. Every form of passenger transportation is heavily subsidized -- and thus "unprofitable" -- because such transportation is essential to the functioning of this and any other society.

Long distance trains serve the travel needs of that growing sement of American society who, by reason of age, health condition or simple preference, are unable or unwilling to drive or fly. Rail passenger ridership as a percentage of U.S. national travel is low because there are few such trains operating -- about a dozen and a half, each with one round trip per day [or less].

Long distance train ridership has declined in recent years because three such trains have been eliminated and the remaining trains are equipped with fewer passenger cars. Amtrak's car fleet [i.e. revenue source] has steadily shrunk because of grossly inadequate capital funding throughout its 32 years of existence. Most of its existing passenger cars and locomotives have been bought on credit and/or sold and leased back. The credit and lease payments increase operating costs thus further decreasing operating revenues as a percent of total operating costs.

But, in the words of Kenneth Meade, UUSDOT Inspector General, the annual operating costs of long distance trains -- about $300,000 -- are "chump change" when compared with the billions of dollars in annual capital needs of the Washington-Boston Northeast Corridor [NEC]. Amtrak is the minority user of this route [commuter trains far outnumber Amtrak's trains] but is fully responsible for its maintenance and rehabilitation. The NEC infrastructure [overhead electric wiring, bridges and tunnels] is over 70 years old and in need of total reconstruction.

Since 1971, Amtrak has received less than one percent of federal transportation funds [and far less than one percent of total national transportation funds] and it carries less than one percent of national intercity travel. European countries typically provide passenger rail service with from 15 to 20 percent of their national transportation budget, and European intercity trains transport about 15 to 20 percent of intercity travel.

Missing in America is a financial commitment to rail passenger service equivalent to the financial commitment to highways, urban public transit, airports and airways, and inland waterways. Also missing is a federal requirement that the planning process mandated for highways, public transit and aviation be expanded to include rail freight and passenger transportation needs. In the face of such destructive neglect, it is inevitable that existing Amtrak service, particularly its long distance trains, appear to be "inevitable losers."

To put and end to this condition will require money -- lots of it -- and better planning so that we do not continue to ignore rail's real but unrealized role in the national transportation system.