Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
By Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.
For The Sunday Gazette
see where Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta is berating Amtrak
again this year, telling them that they must either become
ride the rails of a passing freight. How dare they ask for an increase
subsidy, slightly over one billion a year when granting it would
allocation of 20 billion for highways and additional billions for air
In one year alone, 2001, the commercial airline industry received more
aid than Amtrak has received in its entire 33-year history.
not quite the way he put it, but the policy is clear. As far back as
creation of Amtrak in the early 1970s, Congress stipulated that Amtrak
depend on federal subsidy. Apparently, they considered that Amtrak is
comparable to the US Postal Service which is indeed self-sustaining.
is only because USPS has been granted a monopoly on delivery of
mail. Amtrak can’t be granted a monopoly on travel lest we eliminate
automobiles. Clearly that can’t be done because Congressmen use those
poorer people ride trains and buses.
Cato Institute, righter than right, disputes what I just wrote. On its
they say that “The poor are not especially heavy users of Amtrak.
of Amtrak passengers have incomes above the national average. Travel on
by persons with incomes above $40,000 is the highest of any mode—3.5
higher than on buses and nearly 1.5 times higher than on airlines.
of Amtrak passengers have household incomes of $75,000 or more, and 20
have incomes of $100,000 or more.” That may be
true, but to say, as they do, that the poor are more likely to ride in
airplanes is a bit of a stretch.Per ton of freight or people hauled,
rail is at least three times more fuel-efficient
than highway conveyance. And in terms of load conveyed per unit capital
cost, railways are a great deal less costly
An electrified double track railway can move over 200,000 people per
hour in each
direction; a six lane freeway can move only a quarter of this volume
twice as much.
In their February 10 answer to Secretary Mineta , 35 senators signed a letter of continued support for the survival of our national passenger train system. Of these, 26 were Democrats, one was Independent (Jim Jeffords, of course), and eight were Republicans. Of these eight, five were the only remaining Republican moderates—Chafee, Snowe, Collins, Specter, and Coleman (a Democrat until fairly recently).
don’t understand why this has become such a partisan issue. Just what
that conservatives want to conserve? I submit that high on the list for
civilized country should be a first-class national rail system (if only
one). Expensive? Yes, but Vice-President Cheney claims that deficits
He just favors creating them in a different way.
happened to tell my son Daniel yesterday that his mother and I would be
to Cleveland for a couple of days in April. He said “Why, did you lose
Actually, I told him, we were going to attend an event at Oberlin
about 35 miles to the west. My first impulse was to drive, but Mapquest
that Cleveland was 460 miles from our doorstep and would take seven
I shopped for a decent flight, but found that most airlines would treat
FedEx packages, sending us by way of Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, or
Dulles Airport in Virginia. Finally, we found that Continental flies to
Cleveland non-stop in just a little over an hour and a half. But it
good bit more than the circuitous and double-back routes that require a
never occurred to me to check Amtrak, so I didn’t until I started
this piece. Well, it’s very inexpensive, just $66 each, going and
(Amtrak gives modest discounts for seniors, veterans, or AAA members,
for round trips.) The travel time isn’t too bad, either, just 8 hours
minutes. But there is only one train per day, one that leaves at six
day and arrives at 2:47 a.m. on the next. No thanks.
problems too. The good news about a trip to New York is that the fare
greater from Schenectady than it is from Albany-Rensselaer. The bad
that you can’t travel from Schenectady to Manhattan to catch a
matinee and get back here the same day unless you return to Rensselaer
a cab back to your car. But that makes no
sense, dollar-wise or otherwise.
There is another impediment to trying to ride Amtrak to Manhattan from Schenectady besides a poor selection of schedules, namely, that the published running time from here to Rensselaer is more subject to delay than it is from there to New York. In a farewell discussion on Channel 16 recently, Union College president Roger Hull reminded us that there is only one track—one!—that connects Schenectady to Albany, and it is owned by CSX, not Amtrak. Thus any passenger train daring to attempt that route is subject to being shunted aside by a freight train that enters that corridor earlier or later than originally planned. Dr. Hull said that his greatest disappointment as he leaves our area is that he never succeeded in convincing Governor Pataki to work with Amtrak CEO David Gunn to remedy this. And, I suppose, all the other Amtrak executives he tried to work with were under the Gunn and had a one-track mind.
Ed Reilly lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion page.