Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

By Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.

For The Sunday Gazette


            I see where Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta is berating Amtrak officials again this year, telling them that they must either become self-sustaining or ride the rails of a passing freight. How dare they ask for an increase in their subsidy, slightly over one billion a year when granting it would jeopardize the allocation of 20 billion for highways and additional billions for air travel. In one year alone, 2001, the commercial airline industry received more federal aid than Amtrak has received in its entire 33-year history.

            That’s not quite the way he put it, but the policy is clear. As far back as the creation of Amtrak in the early 1970s, Congress stipulated that Amtrak must not depend on federal subsidy. Apparently, they considered that Amtrak is comparable to the US Postal Service which is indeed self-sustaining. But that is only because USPS has been granted a monopoly on delivery of first-class mail. Amtrak can’t be granted a monopoly on travel lest we eliminate planes and automobiles. Clearly that can’t be done because Congressmen use those and only poorer people ride trains and buses.

            The Cato Institute, righter than right, disputes what I just wrote. On its website, they say that “The poor are not especially heavy users of Amtrak. Three-fourths of Amtrak passengers have incomes above the national average. Travel on Amtrak by persons with incomes above $40,000 is the highest of any mode—3.5 times higher than on buses and nearly 1.5 times higher than on airlines. Nearly one-third of Amtrak passengers have household incomes of $75,000 or more, and 20 percent 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 cars and 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 than superhighways. 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 and costs 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).

            I don’t understand why this has become such a partisan issue. Just what is it that conservatives want to conserve? I submit that high on the list for any civilized country should be a first-class national rail system (if only we had one). Expensive? Yes, but Vice-President Cheney claims that deficits don’t matter. He just favors creating them in a different way.

            I happened to tell my son Daniel yesterday that his mother and I would be going to Cleveland for a couple of days in April. He said “Why, did you lose a bet?” Actually, I told him, we were going to attend an event at Oberlin College, about 35 miles to the west. My first impulse was to drive, but Mapquest told me that Cleveland was 460 miles from our doorstep and would take seven hours. Too tiring.

            So I shopped for a decent flight, but found that most airlines would treat us like FedEx packages, sending us by way of Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, or even 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 costs a good bit more than the circuitous and double-back routes that require a change of plane!

            It never occurred to me to check Amtrak, so I didn’t until I started research for this piece. Well, it’s very inexpensive, just $66 each, going and returning. (Amtrak gives modest discounts for seniors, veterans, or AAA members, but not for round trips.) The travel time isn’t too bad, either, just 8 hours and 47 minutes. But there is only one train per day, one that leaves at six p.m. one day and arrives at 2:47 a.m. on the next. No thanks.

Amtrak has local problems too. The good news about a trip to New York is that the fare is no greater from Schenectady than it is from Albany-Rensselaer. The bad news is that you can’t travel from Schenectady to Manhattan to catch a Wednesday matinee and get back here the same day unless you return to Rensselaer and take 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.