The Future Capitol Hill Station – Partly Funded by an $813M New Starts Grant – Photo by the Author

The Republican Study Committee recently released details for $2.5 Trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years.   Drawn up in order to flesh out their campaign pledge to cut $100B by the end of this fiscal year, the proposed cuts would hit non-highway transportation spending particularly hard.  The cuts would:

  • Rescind all remaining stimulus funds:  $45 Billion
  • Eliminate all Amtrak funding:  $1.56 Billion Annually
  • Eliminate the New Starts program:  $2.5 Billion Annually
  • Rescind HSR Grants:  $2.5B Annually
  • Eliminate the Essential Air Service Program:  $150 Million Annually
  • Eliminate federal subsidies for the DC Metro: $150 Million Annually

This proposal is undoubtedly just the GOP’s opening bid.  Tomorrow’s State of the Union address will likely represent the President’s opening bid, after which the haggling begins.  I do not intend this to be a partisan post,  for neither political party has forwarded a serious proposal to manage our long-term fiscal crisis.  But Republicans are acutely aware that the symbolism of many of these proposed cuts (Amtrak, HSR etc..) far exceeds their budgetary impact, and that the sum of all transportation funding (including highways) amounts to crumbs at the budgetary table.  With luck our political parties will someday choose substance over symbolism.

140 Replies to “Republicans Propose Transit Cuts”

  1. Oh wonderful, now we have to fight tooth and nail just to try not to go backwards, let alone make any progress. Well, nothing to do but keep fighting the good fight I guess.

    1. Some articles I’ve read describe the Republican Study Committee as the “tea party” faction. This proposal would probably be unable to pass the GOP-majority house even if it could get to a vote.

  2. It’s a shame that transit and passenger rail has become a culture-war issue, because I think a lot of the urbanist agenda is not inconsistent with conservative practice and ideology.

    1. Intellectual consistency has almost nothing to with the current wave of conservatives; the exceptions being Rand Paul and a few other true believers who actually would abolish Medicare, Social Security, and the Civil Rights Act etc. It’s a reactionary movement fed by demographic, social and economic changes that are leaving a very privileged generation feeling left behind.

    2. For years, the late Paul Weyrich published a quarterly print magazine called “The New Electric Railway Journal”, dedicated to streetcar and light rail transit. Politically, Paul probably thought Louis XIV was a communist. He was especially convinced that private automobile transportation in the United States was a perfect example of socialism at its worst.

      He thought that a free market would probably produce a fifty-fifty mode split between private cars and electric rail.

      Problem is, in the Spring 1992 issue (I think), the Journal printed an article by another Tunnel driver and I, in response to a critic. So I guess this makes me a known right-wing author. Like Dori Monson and Kirby Wilbur always say, life isn’t fair.

      Mark Dublin

  3. So these cuts amount to ONLY about $250 million/year? How about cutting some military spending? Or farm subsidizes? Or highway funding? Or at least try to convince us that Amtrak is a bad service for our nation and must be eliminated.

    Long gone are the days when political leaders were willing to fund bare-bones Amtrak service simply because Senator Joe over there has HIS daily Amtrak train, and I want to keep mine too.

    1. Sometimes I wonder if, like defunding NPR, privatizing Amtrak wouldn’t be blessing in disguise. The north-east corridor and the auto train I believe are profitable, and would surely continue. Most of the short- to medium-haul west coast lines are largely funded by the states, and I believe WSDOT and ODOT own most of the trainsets for Cascades (right?) The rest of the country (except maybe Chicago) would lose service, but my ability to care about those states is declining exponentially.

      1. The LD trains are necessary for a healthy rail network. Two of the most popular (Coast Starlight and Empire Builder) have Seattle as their terminus.

        If anything the LD trains are becoming more poplular as many people refuse to deal with the TSA.

        A froth-at-the mouth teabagger aquaintence of mine just took a sleeper back to Indiana from Spokane to visit his family because he doesn’t want to do the TSA thing. I’ll be sure to point out to him that he needs to write his senators and congressman if he wants to have that option in the future.

      2. Why are they necessary? Trains are great for short- to medium-haul journeys, but they simply aren’t time-competitive with airlines for a cross-country trip, and they’ll never be.

        I think Amtrak should axe all the routes that are one trip daily or less. At that frequency, you don’t have a transit service, you have a federally-subsidized excursion train. Just as there is no reason to drive nearly-empty busses through the suburbs at great cost for people who aren’t likely to take them, we should prune our national rail network down to keep the core of it healthy.

      3. If the users of highways and airports were required to pay the full cost of their journeys, then the subsidy of Amtrak wouldn’t look like a waste. When/if the cost of driving to Portland doubles there will be a lot more people looking to take the train.

        We all know that Amtrak is subsidized, but most people seem to think that their taxes and tickets are covering the cost of the highways and airspace. Wrong, we’re spending huge amounts of government tax dollars on highway and air subsidies, but we just ignore those subsidies.

        If you ever take a long distance train trip, you’ll quickly realize that most of the people on the train aren’t freeloading, subsidy soaking excursion riders. They are quite ordinary people doing quite ordinary things, like visiting relatives in another state.

      4. Reply to Bruce:

        Your argument only works as long as the airlines remain affordable and accessible and reliable. The way things have been heading lately suggests that such an future is not a given. Already flying is a nightmare experience on numerous fronts: cost is way up and reliability is down. Not to mention the various TSA related agonies and the enormous environmental costs associated with maintaining an extensive air travel network.

      5. I realize that most modes of transit are subsidized, I know that people on the trains are not spongers, and I explicitly endorsed short- to medium-haul service like Cascades and the Northeast corridor. I’m still waiting for someone to explain why we “need” cross-country trains for our passenger rail network to be healthy.

        Routes with less than one daily departure are basically useless as a practical means of transport; most of them are also long-distance trains whose value — even if the ran hourly — is the least compared to airline travel. Not surprisingly, they also hemorrhage money. It is a net win for rail transit to cut out the deadwood and focus on what’s alive.

        Although I have no idea what Martin thinks of this topic, he wrote something which has stuck in my head since I read it, roughly: “I am a rail advocate. That means I believe in frequent service in a limited number of places rather than skeletal service everywhere.” Exactly.

      6. I have to agree with Bruce on this. IMO Long Haul Routes are an albatross around the neck of Amtrak.

      7. Funny thing is it is the NEC that hemorrhages money. Mostly this is due to pounding the tar out of it in WWII then deferring all but the most necessary maintenance for the next 65 years. The NEC needs gobs of money just to stay in a state of good repair much less fund improvements to remove bottlenecks or allow higher speeds on Acela.

        Another huge chunk of Amtrak’s budget are legacy pension costs.

        In reality the LD trains aren’t much of a drain on Amtrak’s budget, particularly the more popular routes like the Empire Builder and the Coast Starlight.

        Besides, without the LD trains getting more short distance trains up and running will be all the more expensive. Furthermore getting support will be all the much harder as you aren’t supplementing exsisting service but having to introduce new service in an area that hasn’t had it.

      8. I think it’s worth pointing out that the original Orient Express, which ran from Paris to Istanbul, was only 1,200 miles long.

        The Empire Builder takes 48 hours to bring 1,500 daily passengers 2,200 miles between Seattle and Chicago (average 45 mph). The Coast Starlight takes 35 hours to bring 1,200 daily passengers 1,400 miles between Seattle and LA (average 40 mph).

        From Amtrak’s performance numbers, via SubsidyScope, we can see that the average per-person operating subsidy for the long-distance trains is $115. For the Empire Builder in particular, it’s $73; for the Coast Starlight, it’s $112.

        In contrast, the NEC *earns* $34 per passenger. And the Cascades only spends $7.76.

        (These numbers do not include the extra depreciation cost of about $25 per passenger. It stands to reason, however, that longer trains will incur more of this cost.)

        I’ve taken both the Empire Builder and the Lake Shore Limited. They’re fun. Parts of Montana are extremely pretty. But I don’t see how it’s worth spending limited resources on these exceptionally expensive and poorly-used trains. For the cost of one daily Empire Builder passenger, we could have *ten* Cascades passengers. Is it worth it to run one Empire Builder trip a day, when for the same cost, you could run the Cascades *hourly*?

      9. There are a number of people, like myself, who are unable or unwilling to fly. Personally I take the Empire Builder back east about once a year to visit family, and without that option I don’t know what I’d do. Needless to say I’m all for long distance trains. It’s how I get around.

      10. Bruce has a good point and make me wonder, what is a good metric for whether or not keep (or build) a particular rail line? I certainly agree that profitability isn’t a good metric, but what is? Number of people moved?

      11. “what is a good metric for whether or not keep (or build) a particular rail line?”

        In the case of an existing route, if ridership and cost recovery are improving and seem to be on a trajectory to continue improving, it makes little sense to kill it.

        For the short term, I don’t see much hope of expanding conventional service unless a state takes their own initiative and sponsors the service.

        Amtrak has many impediments to operating profitably. It alsways needs to be on the lookout for Congressional opposition, it doesn’t have enough capital to invest in maintenance or expand its fleet and the freight railroads see it as a distraction from their main business and will stand in the way of expansion of the LD network.

      12. Chris: I’m not seeing it. The site I linked to above lists the long-distance trains as costing almost $500 million to serve 4 million annual passengers. In contrast, the state-subsidized medium-haul trains serve almost 14 million passengers annually for $120 million. And King County Metro costs about $400 million in subsidy to serve almost 120 million annual passengers.

        The Empire Builder and Coast Starlight together cost $80 million — 2/3 of the *total* cost of all the medium-haul routes.

        Chris and Brian: Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that any of these routes are *bad*. If we had unlimited resources, I’d happily give Amtrak 10x as much money as now. I’m just saying that, given that Amtrak has a limited amount of money and the political climate is relatively hostile towards giving them much more, I think that the short-haul routes are much more worthwhile investments by any reasonable measure of productivity.

        I don’t think that discontinuing the long-haul trains would actually leave anyone stranded — long-distance buses cover most of the same routes (and then some). So the “social service” argument doesn’t really convince me. Intracity transit is much more heavily used than intercity transit — think about how much more bus/Link service you’d be able to afford with the money that’s currently going to Amtrak.

        Jeffrey: The Regional Transit Task Force recently published a set of productivity guidelines for bus routes, but I think that these apply equally well to trains. Services like the NEC and Cascades clearly fall into the “commuter” category, while most of the other trains fall under “local/hourly”. I think that buses like the 25 should be eliminated and their resources redirected to other buses, and I think the same reasoning should apply to the Empire Builder.

      13. Note that none of what I’m saying is an argument against Amtrak subsidies. I think that eliminating those subsidies is a terrible idea. But given that we have a limited amount of money, we need to decide where and how to spend it, and (for the reasons I enumerated above) I think that we’d be much better off spending the money on the short-haul routes than on the long-haul ones.

      14. @Aleks Great link, thanks.

        @Brian A tiny number of people cannot fly or drive, and the demise of Amtrak is unfortunate for them, and I wish I could mitigate that, but sometimes life sucks. People who will not fly or drive have made their own bed and have to lie in it. The existence of such a group of people does not require us to subsidize their choice in the absence of some compelling public interest.

        As to how to evaluate trains in some way other than profitability. Well, profitability (or, inversely, amount of subsidy) is a pretty good metric, as dollar costs map fairly well onto real-world costs. The big things that are missing are the externalities of fossil fuel use. One rule of thumb that I use in my own life, “What if gas was $5/gal?”

        Based on my own cost-benefit analysis, which I think is similar to most middle-class working people, I’d expect services like Cascades — not much slower than driving, way cheaper than flying — to do well, but long-haul trains to suck. Because if I’m visiting family for a long weekend, or on a four day business trip, I’m not going to spend 20 hours of it on the train. My choice is to pony up the money and fly, or not do the trip.

        In discussions about Amtrak, I have a sense of deja vu like like discussions of the Waterfront Streetcar Line. Sometimes people seem to think that trains (or transit generally) are the end in themselves. They’re not: transit is a tool. It exists to move people, and succeeds to the extent it does so.

        Long haul train journeys can never be a useful tool for the vast majority of people in modern society, because they take so long. If you want to take such a journey, you have to plan your trip around it, so the train is then the object of the trip and not a means to an end. At that point, the public interest in (explicitly) subsidizing it ceases.

      15. I too am one who will not fly. I would have had a difficult time getting to some of my conferences in places like Miami or New York if it weren’t for the long distance trains – now that ships rarely offer passage through the Panama Canal (I’d have to time myself to a ship movement from Seattle to the east coast). The train is so much more comfortable than flying – and I get a lot of work done.

      16. It has been a while since I took a close look at Amtrak’s numbers but if I recall correctly all sorts of costs not related to running the LD trains were being allocated to them but not some of the other Amtrak services.

        I also seem to recall the numbers reported for the NEC didn’t include the huge amount of capital Amtrak and the commuter rail agencies pour into that corridor every year just on maintenance.

        Beyond that I’m rather offended things that could help reduce foreign oil use are being gutted because the obscene DoD budget is considered sacrosanct.

      17. Bruce: the Chicago-NYC/Boston train is far, far more than an excursion train. It is actually used by businessmen from Buffalo for day trips. It provides a fast single-overnight trip from end to end and to many points in the middle, and it is the crucial link connecting the Chicago hub system to the NEC. The Chicago-DC train has a similar function.

        The nationally-supported (not state-supported) NYC-Albany-Buffalo service provides a crucial link. Yes, I wish NYS would support it, but we have the least functional state legislature in the nation.

        The “trains to the south” are tendrils from the NEC to Atlanta and Florida, and removing them would reduce the value of the NEC. The New Orleans-Chicago train has a similar function for Chicago (it runs half of its distance in Illinois).

        Yet all of these require some subsidy, and are interstate operations. Privatization would kill them, to all our detriment.

        When people talk about the “long distance” trains they want to ax, they usually mean the four Midwest-West Coast routes, and the infamous Cardinal. The Empire Builder is a transport lifeline for small towns in the frozen north, also the link from Minneapolis to Chicago, and is quite popular. The California Zephyr is the link from Denver to both Chicago and the West Coast, each of which is single-overnight from Denver.

        The Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited, and Cardinal are admittedly mostly touristic — but the loss of transportation capacity among the other trains would be very serious.

      18. “One rule of thumb that I use in my own life, “What if gas was $5/gal?””

        The Chicago-DC and Chicago-NY trains would be bursting at the seams.

        Chicago-NY is already limited by car shortage in peak months!

        I think this is sufficient to demolish your silly ideas about the “unimportance” of Amtrak.

        “Routes with less than one daily departure are basically useless as a practical means of transport”
        There are only two of them (Sunset Limited and Cardinal) and Amtrak agrees with you. They’re going daily as soon as Amtrak can find the equipment.

        Daily trains *are* useful, though twice-daily are better.

        I notice that Aleks, as usual, cherrypicks the Chicago-West Coast service as his examples of “long distance” trains. He misses the fact that most “long-distance” trains are single-overnights. Even the California Zephyr is mostly Denver-West Coast and Denver-Chicago — over half the train turns over in Denver.

        Loss of Chicago-New York would be a huge loss, and *the Lake Shore Limited is a “long-distance” train*.

      19. It’s worth pointing out that the cost allocation at Amtrak is infamously misleading. If you look at “fully allocated” costs, you end up getting nonsense, because you’re arbitrarily allocating overhead to trains in an arbitrary way. If you look at “avoidable” costs, you get something more realistic, but you discover the obvious: running more trains on the same line is more efficient.

        Therefore, the money arguments for cutting long-distance trains could just as well be used as arguments for *increasing the service* on the long-distance trains, with multiple additional services per day.

        Now, that might not get the ridership to be worth it on the Southwest Chief. On the Lake Shore Limited, which is already limited by carriage availability in peak, it most certainly *would* get the ridership.

        Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the political argument. The NEC costs money — it doesn’t pay for its own maintenance. (Just like roads.) It’s impossible to get the squabbling states to agree on funding it. How do you get the federal votes for the necessary funding? You run trains through their states. The Cardinal is the “West Viriginia votes” train, the Southwest Chief is the “New Mexico votes” train, the Empire Builder is the “Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin votes” train. At this point the network is pretty much at the minimal vote-collection level, *given the existence of the US Senate*, which is weighted towards empty states which probably wouldn’t have train service if we didn’t have the Senate.

      20. A commonly perpetuated myth that the NEC is profitable. It’s unique in that it’s the only route where Amtrak owns and is therefor responsible for maintaining the ROW.

        Only Amtrak’s signature ‘high-speed’ service on the Northeast Corridor, the Acela, and its companion Metroliner service, consistently earn more than their operating costs. However, the annual maintenance cost of the Northeast Corridor dwarfs the operating profit generated by Acela and Metroliner service.

      21. @Nathanel Did you read anything I actually wrote? I never, ever, said that Amtrak is “unimportant.” My entire point is that we should can the pointless cross-country services in favor of others, such as the Chicago service.

      22. Therefore, the money arguments for cutting long-distance trains could just as well be used as arguments for *increasing the service* on the long-distance trains, with multiple additional services per day.

        100% agreed. Rail’s key advantage is capacity. Above a certain level, it’s far cheaper on a per-passenger-mile basis to operate trains than buses/cars/anything else.

        But conversely, below a certain level, the fixed costs dominate, and the economy of scale goes unrealized.

        Thus, if you can choose between two skeletal lines or one frequent one, I would almost always choose the latter.

        For example, what if discontinuing the Crescent allowed you to double or even triple service on the Lake Shore Limited? (A brief look at the numbers suggests that this would be true.) Is it really better to maintain skeletal service on both lines (and I’d argue that daily service is always skeletal)?

        Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the political argument. The NEC costs money — it doesn’t pay for its own maintenance. (Just like roads.) It’s impossible to get the squabbling states to agree on funding it. How do you get the federal votes for the necessary funding? You run trains through their states. The Cardinal is the “West Virginia votes” train, the Southwest Chief is the “New Mexico votes” train, the Empire Builder is the “Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin votes” train. At this point the network is pretty much at the minimal vote-collection level, *given the existence of the US Senate*, which is weighted towards empty states which probably wouldn’t have train service if we didn’t have the Senate.

        Completely true. As I said above, it’s silly for Amtrak to cut any service that earns it more funding (via the political process) than it costs. If the politics work out such that all of the current long distance trains are needed for Amtrak to receive any federal funding, then keep them all — that’s a 200% return on investment.

        But if Amtrak’s federal funding is eliminated, which is how this thread got started in the first place, then this is no longer true.

      23. it’s silly for Amtrak to cut any service that earns it more funding

        That’s exactly why the present system dooms passenger rail service in this country to a historical footnote that just perpetuates pork barrel politics. Obama pledged in the State of the Union to veto any bill that had unspecified earmarks. Of course all earmarks are specified. Change? We can believe in?

      1. VA and MD contribute a bunch to WAMTA. The fedaral dollars are for the portion of the agency in the district.

      2. WAMTA? VA contributes to the Metrorail Silver Line to link Downtown DC to Dulles Airport, but that’s a WMATA project. MD’s main funding for transit goes to MTA Maryland, and primarily the MARC and Baltimore Light Rail, but if WMATA were to extend the Metro, MD does indeed contribute to that. Current projects for discussion are an extension of the Green Line to Fort Meade, an extenstion of the Red Line to Germantown or a project called CTC to link the Metro to Germantown and Clarksburg and possibly Urbana, and (hopefully) the Purple Line to link Bethesda to New Carrolton as sort of an “Inner Beltway.” The federal government has to contribute to the DC area because Congress is responsible for it from Article 1 of our Constitution.

    2. That may be fairly unique to the District. I think federal grants are mostly for capital projects, except for those that target rural and tribal areas.

      1. “Bruce has a good point”

        No, actually he doesn’t. He assumes that people get on a long-distance train in the originating city, and get off in the terminating city, with no one getting on or off in-between. In the real world, very few people ride the entire way: they go from city to small town, or vice-versa. The long-distance trains serve a vitally under-setved part of the country.

        But very much more to the point, why are we fighting for scraps? Are we so meek and simple-minded that we accept the ridiculous assumption that cuts to programs that people use and enjoy are inevitable? What about raising taxes, particularly on the wealthy, and cutting off these stupid wars?

        Pretty words and flag-waving aside. The GOP sold it’s soul to the highest bidder in 1980. If we don’t acknowledge that, and act accordingly, this country is doomed.

      2. Actually, you keep reinforcing my point. It bothers me enough that we’re paying $133 a head to put people on a slow train from Louisiana to California; that we’re doing so to move them between tiny towns in Texas just rubs salt in the wound.

        You advocate loonily cost-ineffective nonsense like this and then wonder why transit as drubbed as “government waste,” and why we’re on the back foot in the public debate. You can’t hand your anti-government anti-transit foes a stick this big and expect them not to flog you with it.

        Aside from the politics, we need break free of the the idea that every single expenditure of money on transit is good, and that rail is unconditionally better than better than bus in every circumstance. Small towns in the middle of nowhere should have coach service: that’s what their ridership justifies.

        Nor is it the case that I simply have it in for rural America or Amtrak. If you had suggested that Metro run busses at 5 minutes headways through Beaux Arts Village while the 70 is standing room only, I would say the same: it’s a colossal waste of transit money.

        On two points of fact: I dispute that all but a “very few” riders are going between cities. The average trip distance on Cascades is 160 miles, and Portland and Seattle together account for more (WAY more) boardings than all the other stations on the line put together. Cascades isn’t long-haul of course, but I see no reason why the pattern should differ on other services. I personally think a number of the stations (Kelso, Centralia & Stanwood) should simply be skipped as they’re not worth the time and diesel it takes to stop.

        I also don’t get which towns are “underserved” by commercial coach service and why. I’m dying to see some examples of towns (outside of Alaska) that have rail but no bus service.

      3. @Bruce: Most of the towns between Grand Forks, ND and Spokane, WA on the Empire Builder have no equivalent intercity bus service. By “equivalent” I mean essentially parallel to the tracks. Technically some of these cities have intercity buses, but they are north-south lines, not east-west.

        Now I suspect that if Amtrak discontinued the Empire Builder, one of the minor intercity bus lines (not Greyhound, they’ve abandoned the region) would probably take over.

        As one poster pointed out, once-a-day trains are very inconvenient for short trips. (Look up the Amtrak schedule from Saint Cloud, MN to Fargo, ND and imagine using it for a round trip. Yuck-O!) I believe there is sufficient demand for two trains a day (short trips become more feasible) but Amtrak lacks the equipment.

        As to the subsidy levels on long-distance trains, they seem low enough to be within range of being greatly cut through a fare increase. Last time I checked, Minneapolis to Seattle was $153. If the $73 subsidy was eliminated the fare would be $226. Is that really bad for almost 2,000 miles?

      4. John: According to Kayak, you can currently fly from Seattle to Minneapolis for as low as $158.

        I agree with you that raising the fares seems like a good idea. The train is already sufficiently impractical (because of how long it takes compared to flying) that demand is probably fairly inelastic — which is to say, it’s probably possible to raise fares to a profit-making level without significantly reducing demand. But I could be wrong, and raising fares by ~$100 might just end up driving everyone away.

      5. I wonder if it might make sense to introduce a third class on some trains. Reduce the seat pitch and pack ’em in. Keep them out of the diner, but come through with a food cart every couple of hours. A second class upgrade gets you more space, diner privileges and a place to plug in, but it will cost you more. The budget conscious can still ride; it will be more uncomfortable, but probably not as bad as an airplane.

      6. Why are we fighting over scraps, indeed? Bruce, your stupid idea has been *tried*, and it resulted in worse train service nationwide, including in the NEC. Look at the history of Amtrak budget cuts.

        And remember that *none of it is fully profitable, and none of it can be fully profitable, as long as competing highways and airports are subsidized*.

        If you want to keep the NEC and the Chicago Hub and the California system and the Cascades and the NC, VA, and PA state trains, the skeleton long-distance network which Amtrak currently has doesn’t cost much more, honestly. Most of it’s the same tracks used by the “corridor” trains. …and losing the votes of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Georgia, North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Florida, etc. isn’t worth it. Instead, beef up and speed up the more successful of the trains.

      7. Right, beef up the ones that aren’t idiotic wastes of money… like the short- to medium-haul services. How many times do I have to repeat myself before people stop going crazy at me?

    3. Devil’s advocate: a huge chunk of our budget is military “defense” spending, and Republicans see that as the one legitimate role of government. Rather than take a hatchet to that third rail, they want to give the social-services safety net a death by a thousand cuts.

  4. Yes, the GOP is doing itself a great job of putting the party back into the 1700s. They’ve lost my future votes, and the Democratic establishment is just as bad; I truly commend Zach for pointing out the ridiculousness of both parties in this matter.

  5. Asking seriously, not rhetorically: what can we citizens do to bring about the result Zach’s last sentence calls for?

    It seems to me we’ve got two choices. One, two new political parties, one to represent people who make a living by their work, and one to represent people who live by their accumulated wealth- which is by no means always ill-gotten.

    Something like the old Democratic Party without the uncouth racism, and the old Republican Party without the genteel kind.

    Or two, a grass-roots takeover of both existing major parties to bring about the same result, modeled on the way the far right took over the Republicans over the last thirty years.

    What’s everybody think?

    Mark Dublin

    1. Not sure what the correct tactic is. You’re right, we have little choice but to try one or both of these tactics.

  6. What is the treasury doing with 1032 Billion dollars a year? I’m assuming it is debt service?

    1. It’s for FY 2009, so I think it’s TARP, quantitative easing (money printing), and other bailouts. Normally Trasury isn’t nearly that high.

    2. Around a quarter of that Treasury figure is debt service, about 250 billion. Most of the rest is probably TARP, which was mostly recovered this last year.

      Debt service is still the next biggest slice behind Defense. It wouldn’t be so bad if we hadn’t pissed away the opportunity to pay it down during the boom years, rather than tax-cutting back into the red.

  7. Quantitative easing ….is quantatative easing a real occurrence??

    why do republicans focus on non-highway cuts??

    consitutionally, i dont know if there was even supposed to be a dept of transportation.

    when it comes to higher densely populated urban transportion isues, do roads/highways often require property takings as much as busses or rails???

    when the reasons for using a car become less desirable do to so many of them going to a few locations do ‘more roads” create the same problems as adding busses or rails??

    whzat is the republican philosophy against non highway transportation spending??

    1. I heard a few weeks ago Michelle Bachmann saying that she wanted to cut all earmarks, but that ”I don’t believe that building roads and bridges and interchanges should be considered an earmark.” Basically, the Republicans and Democrats are the same fiscally: they both want to cut the things they don’t like but exempt the things they do.

      1. Yeah. Only difference that Democrats usually admit that, while Republicans are usually wildly dishonest about it. :-P

  8. “I’m still waiting for someone to explain why we “need” cross-country trains for our passenger rail network to be healthy.”

    i think the person(s) who said that are probably liars and being insincere. i have ridden the zephyr+capitol limited across country and will do so again soon. without a sleeper car the trip is very uncomforatable. southwest can fly one way in about six hours cheaper – even with long lines at the airport.

    where rail is optimum, i am not sure. likely busy city corridors where flight boardings an dsecurity make flying less conveinient.

    1. I present Chicago-New York, stopping in Toledo, Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany, as an example of why we need cross-country trains for our passenger rail network to be healthy.

      This provides natural sleeper-length trips for Chicago-upstate NY (which is a bigger market than you think, and for which air is horribly uncompetitive). As for driving, eeewwww.

      1. It would, perhaps, be against the comment policy to ask if you know how to read a map, so I won’t. NYC-Chicago is not a cross-country service. It is a medium-haul train… the very thing I am advocating. Do you read any of my posts before flying off the handle?

      2. It’s not cross country but it’s a BIG country. Chicago to DC is twice the distance of London to Paris; about the same as London to Barcelona. Maybe in Australia or Siberia that’s medium haul but by most standards that’s a long train trip.

  9. I think all those cuts are incredibly short sighted, except for the Essential Air Service. It’s an expensive program that does little more than subsidize rural living for the upper middle class (the ones who can afford plane tickets). In fact, by subsidizing this form of travel, it competes unfairly with many bus/train services that could serve the same purpose. Since many Republicans tend to be “pro-rural” though, I’m pleasantly surprised to actually see it on the list.

    1. Many rural commuities absolutely love the Amtrak service that passes through their area. In fact in many cases it is the only way to get in or out of town without driving as there is no longer any sort of motor coach or scheduled air service. While it isn’t necessarily a lot of people I’m sure many in Montana and North Dakota would pitch quite a fit if the Empire Builder was ever eliminated.

      1. If you’re going from one side of Montana to the other side of Montana, or from Albequerque to El Paso, it’s a short or medium distance trip, not a long distance trip. What’s the average trip length on the Empire Builder? Only a small minority of travelers go end-to-end on the LD trains.

      2. many in Montana and North Dakota …i didnt think there were many in those areas.

        between montana and north dakota greyhound has about 60 stops. is there a population center greater than 100k in either of those states?? i would expect that many of those busses go to an airport somewhere?

        when on the zephyr going east from reno the train got fuller and fuller the closer to chicago…most noticably in denver.

        “On one of its worst lines, the Sunset Limited connecting Los Angeles and Orlando, Amtrak lost $433 per passenger. Your tax dollars would have been saved if the line had been scrapped and Amtrak’s customers given plane tickets instead. (The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, pp. 129—130)”

        i am not sure about the analysis from the above link. if it is false altogether of deliberately faulty and incomplete.

        other info i have seen says long distance routes are what benefits amtrak the most.

      3. The Sunset Limited is a particularly poor performer. This is in part due to its 3 times a week schedule:

        The tri-weekly service schedule increased costs by forcing long layovers of On-
        Board Services (OBS) personnel at New Orleans, and Train and Engine (T&E) crews at various
        layover locations along the route. It also forced inefficient equipment utilization. The fact that
        train mileage increases 76% while avoidable costs rise by only 31% is evidence that this plan
        makes real improvements in labor and equipment efficiency.

        (from Sunset Limited / Texas Eagle
        Performance Improvement Plan

      4. I’d try to find a better source than Lew Rockwell, if I were you… he isn’t particularly authoritative.

        As I mentioned above, the Empire Builder costs an average of $80 per passenger in subsidy (i.e. above the ticket price). I believe that the opportunity cost of not spending that money on local/regional services far outweighs the benefit of having the long-distance service. I have yet to see a convincing argument otherwise. That’s all.

      5. Are there station boarding breakdowns for Amtrak? For Cascades, many of the numbers in small towns are almost negligible. Stanwood has a thousand boardings, Centralia 4.5k… versus 116k and 112k.

        Those people may love their service, but there isn’t enough of them to justify it (in my view.)

      6. It occurs to me that we’re already arguing from a defeatist standpoint. If you didn’t know any better you’d think we’d already lost the battle. I for one am sick of transit funding forever being such a low priority, and this seems like as good a time as any to pick a fight.

        The question is, what should we do? I’m in the midst of writing every member of congress I can think of who might have any influence at all, anyone have any other ideas?

      7. Chris, are you refuting or agreeing with my point about Essential Air Service? Maybe you just accidentally replied to the wrong thread.

      8. It’ll be intresting to watch the EAS go away, if it does. And truely see if any privates start operating the service fully. Would be a good object lesson to those who say privatized mass transportation (which airlines really are) can work or not…

        My guess is bye bye flights. Mabye its time to go into the small town-Airport and Small town-Amtrak connecting bus business. Anyone got some used MC12s?

      9. It’s not defeatist, just recognizing opportunity cost.

        Assume, for a moment, that the amount of funding that Amtrak receives from the federal government is fixed. Given that, what are the optimal service levels for Amtrak to have?

        For a corridor like the NEC, which makes an operating profit, the answer is clearly “as much as possible”. But what about the other routes? Almost all of them require some sort of subsidy. Therefore, by spending money on a particular line, you are losing the opportunity to spend money on any of the other lines.

        Every dollar spent on the Empire Builder is a dollar that can’t be spent on any of the other lines — lines where you would get much more “bang for your buck”.

        Is the money that Amtrak gets from the federal government fixed? No, not really. It’s possible that there’s some money which Amtrak could only get if they run long-distance trains, and if that’s true, then it would be silly for them not to take it. But to the extent that Amtrak is funding the long-distance trains from its general fund, they’re doing so without considering the opportunity cost.

        It’s ludicrous that our country isn’t willing to fund infrastructure and services that will help wean us from foreign oil, even when we’re willing to spend trillions on protecting that oil. But even if we managed to increase Amtrak’s subsidy by 10x, I’d be arguing the same thing: it’s much better to spend that money on operating or improving short- and medium-haul routes, or even on improving intracity transit (e.g. Metro and other local/regional providers), than on operating long-haul routes that just don’t have the demand for anything other than skeletal service.

      10. @sthomper: I’ve ridden the Greyhound across ND and MT many times in my life. I don’t recall any airport stops, which is a shame. There isn’t even a city bus to the Fargo airport. :-( Now a different company runs the buses between Fargo and Billings, but AIUI they kept mostly the same stops. Personally, I believe Greyhound made some big mistakes when they did the big cutbacks in rural areas a few years ago. Many small towns without a lot of customers could have been kept in the loop with a call-ahead system, and better intermodality with airlines and Amtrak, including timed connections, would have worked wonders.

      11. “Assume, for a moment, that the amount of funding that Amtrak receives from the federal government is fixed.”

        It’s not. Bzzzet. Aleks, you fail on line one.

        Look up the history of Amtrak funding and you’ll see that it’s very much not fixed, and furthermore, the size of Amtrak funding is largely dependent on promises to provide service to particular Senators’ states.

        I didn’t bother reading the rest of your counterfactual.

      12. “Personally, I believe Greyhound made some big mistakes when they did the big cutbacks in rural areas a few years ago.”

        They did it because it can’t be provided profitably…. even with government-subsidized highways.

        I’d be OK with the government taking over Greyhound the way it took over passenger rail service.

      13. Nathanael,

        To quote from my post (the one you didn’t read):

        Is the money that Amtrak gets from the federal government fixed? No, not really.

        I don’t think we’re as far apart on this as you think we are.

        All I’m saying is that we should remember how this thread got started in the first place:

        Eliminate all Amtrak funding: $1.56 Billion Annually

        If this actually happens — and hopefully it won’t, but if it does — then suddenly the amount of money Amtrak receives *is* fixed, at zero.

  10. What about economic GAINS from the 25 million annual Amtrak passengers? Nobody seems to quantify or even discuss them. People coming in on Amtrak trains to Seattle (and other communities) means tourism dollars to those communities. No Amtrak train = no tax revenue for many cities.

      1. Arguably those city/states do pony up the cash.

        It first goes to the Feds, and then is returned.

        Same argument can be made for a lot of Federal Spending – why have a Federal gas tax? Why send money to the Feds for Education? Economic stimulus grants? Rural electrification (now internet)? Agricultural subsidies?

        There is a lot of Federal spending that could devolve to the States – and if it did we’d get those states that are getting more out of the system than they put in off the dole. No different that this state with our rural counties benefitting from the urban produced largess.

        It does beg the question though about if we really should be one Country, or closer to home one State or two…

      2. Rural areas are usually net gainers at both the federal and state level.

        Just like WA pays money for Cascades, these other states need to help pay for their trains.

    1. This is why I love local improvement districts. The clearest financial benefactors from transit are the businesses to which it provides access. They should want to pay for it — and often, they do!

  11. Is there any impact from the elimination of new starts on future legs of Sound Transit light rail?

    1. Well certainly there will be. Link will run from Northgate to 200th and no farther. It’s likely that the idiots will win the lawsuit barring conversion of the I-90 bridge to fixed guideway, and East Link will be demoted to articulated trolley buses. That should certainly make South Bellevue happy.

      Seattle may somehow fund a mostly surface fast tram line to Ballard via Lower Queen Anne, and there will be the central city circulators along Broadway and out Jackson a way. But that’s it.

      We can all pray that the Metro council throws this cock-a-mamie idea of de-wiring inner Seattle in the trash bin. The Chinese are coming to the Middle East and you’re going to see $6 to $8 gasoline within a few years.

  12. What about being able to go across this country on a series of regional passenger railroads, like the Talgo line here? Bring back, update, and upgrade railroad hotels in regional centers.

    One especially valuable kind of freedom right now would be the freedom to see our country, without having either to fly over it or drive across it. Commercial air travel and freedom don’t belong in the same sentence. Personal dignity has long needed to be restored to the vocabulary of travel.

    How to pay for it? Pick a war and stay out of it. If we have to fight one, raise every tax on the book, gasoline first and commercial advertising second, to completely cover the cost. The United States of America is probably the only country in the history of the world every one of whose troubles are completely self-inflicted.

    Mark Dublin

    1. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars are the first wars of this scale we’ve fought on credit. Historically, we have always hiked taxes in wartime, usually on the rich, to pay for it.

      Not this time. This time we cut taxes while we ramped up military spending to fight 2 wars.

      1. When have we ever fought one war, much less two, for one percent GDP? Vietnam was costing around 10 to put it in perspective.

        The wars are not a major source of our debt.

    2. The railroads created passenger demand by building the hotels. If you want a return to that then pull the plug on Amtrak and change the tax incentives such that the private railroads want to do that again. Or, I guess we could adopt the Canadian VIA model where one way “super saver” from Vancouver to Montreal is $600. It’s nice service but I’d put my money on the Oracle of Omaha providing better bang for the buck.

  13. The tri-weekly service schedule increased costs by forcing long layovers of On-
    Board Services (OBS) personnel at New Orleans,….

    thats sounds false and perhaps untrue. i expect the employees could be contracted in some way to work in concert with a 3 day a week run. i expect trains have often run on non daily schedules and scheduling various employees probably isnt too much of an issue.

    1. How it sounds to you, an ignorant layman, is irrelevant.

      It is fact — the tri-weekly schedule forces long layovers.

      What you are missing is the following:
      (1) There are federal laws regulating the hours of service of railroad workers. (Technically this is true for all workers.)
      (2) The gaps between the end of one train and the beginning of the next are not large enough to allow the workers to be employed half-time — but they are nevertheless long.
      (3) There are no other trains to transfer the workers to in New Orleans.

      Passenger trains actually run on non-daily schedules *very rarely*. It is extremely uncommon, worldwide, and has always been extremely uncommon.

      1. “(3) There are no other trains to transfer the workers to in New Orleans.”

        There are the City of New Orleans and the Crescent, but they already have their own staffing plans.

      2. It is fact …

        i expect scheduling could be modified to undo long layover that the link or whoever wrote the content at link says is the reason for higher costs.

        the info may be false…an issue i havent seen you question when others here have said the amtrak had posted wrong data numbers before.

        thats ignorant.

      3. perhaps they have in some cases. i dont know. if its a passnger tain in an area with several other daily trains (easy to get additional crew flowing on to) the three times a week may have been sufficient.

        if it even runs only three times a week.

  14. Lew Rockwell, if I were you… he isn’t particularly authoritative.”

    is he, whoever lew rockwell is, often false and wrong too??

    1. Lew Rockwell is often false and wrong, yes. Not always, but he peddles a lot of purest bullshit.

  15. “I believe that the opportunity cost of not spending that money on local/regional services far outweighs the benefit of having the long-distance service.”

    dont know about the opportunity cost issue or its validity.

    are you saying you would prefer money spent on local regional services and not ld trains or something?? if something else what??

    is having the long distance train as it operates through various regions/localities a less efficient way of serving those areas??

    several overniter trains between various cities instead with less services than the long distance trains, for instance??

  16. Zach, I don’t think it’s fair to include Essential Air Service as a symbolic “transit cut”. I have yet to read or hear any good reason to keep this subsidy alive, EXCEPT for symbolic reasons. If anything, its presence is actually probably more detrimental to transit.

  17. aside would anyone happen to know what the average ridership on amtrak trains are on the section just between seattle and portland or where to find that info??

  18. Democrat or Republican, at the state level, Federal budget cuts can benefit both sides. Why does HSR have to be Federal? If a state like Washington wants to build HSR North-South or East-West along its axes, it may want to coordinate with its nearest neighbors, but that’s about it.

    So, cutting the Federal budget gives state and local governments more opportunity to add revenue in accordance with the desires of local residents.

    1. In Washington state, you’re right about the ability to build HSR within the state. Look at the DC-Virginia-North Carolina route, or the Illinois-Indiana-Michigan route, or the Illinois-Wisconsin-Minnesota route, for examples of why HSR *SHOULD* be a *FULLY FEDERAL* operation. It’s as bad as trying to get trains from Germany to France was during the periods when their governments were arguing.

  19. One group of experts say Amtrak’s long-distance trains have the least riders and highest costs compared to regional trains (with the Empire Builder the worst performer). Another group of experts say the opposite, that long-distance trains generate ridership for the regional trains, and the regional trains would suffer if the long-distance trains were eliminated. I don’t know which is right. I used to believe cut the long-distance trains, but now that service and reliability have improved, and ridership goes up whenever there’s an airline attack or a burst of TSA fussiness, I’m inclined to agree with those who say, “Keep it on life support because it’ll be many times harder to restart it from scratch than to improve it while it’s still running.” It’d be like those cities who tore down their train stations and tore up the tracks.

    Amtrak is the only east-west service on the far northern route between Spokane and somewhere short of Minneapolis. Otherwise you have to take a N-S bus ninety miles to I-90/94. I rode the Builder in 2008 and saw 25-50 people getting on or off at Whitefish, Minot (home of an air force base), Fargo, and the smaller towns. Obviously that doesn’t include people in distant cars that I couldn’t see and didn’t meet at meals. Whitefish in particular loves their train: they’ve refurbished the historic station and installed a “Great Northern” rock sculpture.

    It’s disingenuous to handicap Amtrak and then claim it’s useless because its service is poor. The answer is to improve the service so that Amtrak can run to its potential. The problems with deteriorating tracks, single tracks, freight scheduling, zigzags, and once-a-day service are well known. Passenger rail did run at 90 mph in the 1920s across the US, so we know it’s possible.

    Most regional trains are funded by the states, not the federal government. The federal government occasionally helps with capital improvements only. The Cascades is funded by Washington and Oregon (and BC?). The Capitols, San Joaquin, and Pacific Surfliner are funded by California. If the state subsidies disappear, those lines disappear. I’m not sure if Amtrak even can take the money from eliminating long-distance trains and put it into regional trains without a federal law change.

    Long term, rail is more energy-efficient than planes will ever be. It absolutely makes sense to build HSR to San Diego and Chicago and New York. Just because we can’t do it now doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and say we won’t ever do it, and that high-energy air travel is a permanent solution. Even if rail will never capture all airline flights, it would capture more of them if the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight ran more often and at 90 mph. As airline prices rise with oil prices, people will stop doing 2000-mile mile weekend vacations. They’ll take fewer, longer vacations at train speed. If it takes 24 or 36 hours to get to Chicago (currently 48), they’ll just include that in the trip, or if that’s too long they’ll go to San Francisco instead. If they really have to see grandma’s wedding or funeral this weekend without having to take a week off for it, they’ll have saved up for a once-in-every-five-years flight.

    1. Another factor in these long-term scenarios is that trains can be extended almost without limit. For high-demand routes it’s cheap (long term) to just add another car. But there’s real potential for quality of ride. The ski train up to Snoqualamie had a dancing car. You could really make that 36 hour train enjoyable with enough ammenities. Not quite cruise-ship level, but certainly much more enjoyable than flying or driving (hey, it already is).

    2. but now that service and reliability have improved,……

      maybe. i have read here that amtrak has fudged numbers on certain things.

      the zephyr labled train i was on was 5 minutes late leaving reno. teh capitol limited i was on was said to ahve killed someone and was three hours late.

    3. Your post is half sensible and half nonsense. People will travel less, on average. They’ll do local vacations. They’ll short- and medium-haul trains (NYC-Chicago, Boston-Maine, Seattle-Portland). They’ll fly less frequently. Total agreement so far. But I promise, 99% of working adults will never, ever take FOUR DAYS out of their lives to go Seattle-Chicago. They might do it once, just for the journey, but then you have an EXCURSION TRAIN which is precisely what all the status quo defenders are telling me that the long-haul trains aren’t.

      Maybe all the other folks on STB live unhurried lives of ease and luxury, but I don’t and no-one I know does. If long-haul routes didn’t exist and I suggested we divert money from well used, popular lines to run thinly patronized multi-day trains across the country at huge expense, I would be accused of trying to sabotage passenger rail in the US… by the same people who seem to think I’m the antichrist for suggesting the converse.

      1. A lot of people did take trains across the country before airplanes, and they probably will again when flying becomes too expensive. Even now people drive across the country and, of course, take the train.

        People travel for lots of reasons, and have differing expectations of how long it should take. People won’t make short round trips if it’s a day or two each way, but they’ll make longer trips to visit the family for the summer or go to college. There are also the one-way trips: going to a new city for a new job or a change of scene. People used to do all these by train, and in Europe and Asia a lot of them still do it by train. The difference in the US is that the rail system has been neglected for fifty years in the rush to build highways and airports.

        What’s an excursion train? A luxury vehicle? That’s a simple problem to solve: order the vehicle and put it in the schedule. I’m not interested in that; it’ll happen as soon as there’s enough demand for luxury trains. What I DON’T want to happen is all long-distance trains replaced by luxury trains and then the luxury trains slowed down because “people want to linger by the scenery”. SOME people want to linger by the scenery; others want to get from point A to point B at a reasonable speed, and just want something half decent to look at and edible food on the way. A slow excursion train is fine, but not as the only long-distance service.

      2. A lot of people did take trains across the country before airplanes,

        And a lot of people took ships across the Atlantic and some still do and we may again if flying becomes too expensive but that’s no reason to run a nationalize luxury liner now.

        The difference in the US is that the rail system has been neglected for fifty years in the rush to build highways and airports.

        Europe and Asia have plenty of airports and highways. We move a much greater percentage of our freight by rail than Europe. In terms of efficiency (work done per unit of energy) the US rail system puts Europe to shame. The difference is we have less than half the population density of Europe (mainland China has twice the population density of Europe). Western Europe is a web of high population centers all within a few hundred miles of each other. Most of the US is isolated corridors like Portland/Seattle separated by hundreds or thousands of miles.

        We’d probably have a much more extensive network of excursion trains if it provided what people want (i.e. willing to spend their hard earned cash on) rather than what politicians feel they can get.

        What I DON’T want to happen is all long-distance trains replaced by luxury trains and then the luxury trains slowed down because “people want to linger by the scenery”.

        So, Great Britain should nationalize Cunard Line. Can’t have those luxury liners for people that want to linger. Replace the whole damn fleet with WWII style troop ships because “that’s the future?”

      3. “Total agreement so far. But I promise, 99% of working adults will never, ever take FOUR DAYS out of their lives to go Seattle-Chicago. ”

        right..but are the long distance routes even really designed to attract those riders??
        is the long distance train structured so that it functions as a regional train on various segments??

        or are the routes , for instance the zephyr (a real amtrak route?), e.builder “and perhaps others” run in a more inefficient way than having shorter runs focused in busier areas…servign more people and perhaps reducing some car congestion and providing near-same-as-car-travel-costs??

        or would it be better to have two trains a day from to denver and the same between say, sanfran>sac>reno and no service between say… reno and s.l.c. for instance instead of a once day long distance route from san fran to chicago??

      4. “And a lot of people took ships across the Atlantic and some still do and we may again if flying becomes too expensive but that’s no reason to run a nationalize luxury liner now.”

        Trains are different than ships. When the time comes, companies will build luxury cruise ships and no-frills ferries. But with rail, somebody needs to spend a lot of capital lay the track, acquire ROW, and maintain it. We’re talking about two levels of improvement. One, incremental, which will help both long-distance and regional trains where they share track. Seattle-Spokane is clearly regional even if it’s not yet being used as such. Two, high-speed rail, which will require new tracks and thus a lot more capital.

        The issue is, when flying becomes too expensive, it will also be a lot more expensive to build an alternative infrastructure and it will take decades to complete, and we may not be able to afford to build anything at that time if US manufacturing continues to stagnate and the government gets poorer and people are spending all their income on oil (in the form of food and commuting). So we may end up with a 20-30 year gap without good interstate or international transportation at all, or if we can’t afford to build it then, we may never build it. And people in Europe and Asia will be zipping across the continents in their trains and doing commerce while the US is left behind. That’s why we need to start investing in rail infrastructure now — includes long-distance trains as well as regional — because it will take several decades to complete. And just calling all long-distance trains “excursions” is nonsense. Are all flights excursions? Are all Greyhound trips excursions? We need an equivalent to a ferry for ordinary cross-country trips, one accessible to all classes, not just luxury “excursion trains” for the rich.

      5. We already can’t afford it. The interest on the debt is forcast to exceed defense spending in only three more years. Piling on more debt now for an imagined critical need someday isn’t going to help that. I guess the Chinees will thank us when they can buy up the lines for a nickel on the dollar at the USA going out of business sale.

    4. It’s disingenuous to handicap Amtrak and then claim it’s useless because its service is poor. The answer is to improve the service so that Amtrak can run to its potential.

      why is that disingenious?? if teh service is poor isnt that already a handicap??

      i have no issue against train travel i am trying to find out is runnin gmore basic short high occupancy routes is better that the long distance routes at leveling off subsidies (is amtrak even private anyway??)

      1. “why is that disingenious?? if teh service is poor isnt that already a handicap??”

        It’s like shooting a dog in the foot and then complaining that it can’t win races anymore. Or like saying the dog is useless and should be retired because you didn’t give it an environment where it could be productive to its potential. Focus on Amtrak’s potential, not on how it’s limping along with its current resources.

        I’m not pitting long-distance service against regional service. I agree that improving regional service is higher priority and will help the most people for the least amount of money. But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore long-distance service entirely and let it wither.

    5. Mike,

      Amtrak runs on very little “deteriorating track”. The one place it does happen is the Silver Star through Columbia, South Carolina. CSX has demoted the old Seaboard line through Columbia in favor of the mostly double track ACL line through Pee Dee and Rocky Mount. So the Star does have some rough running.

      Similarly, the Cardinal route across Indiana is a bit secondary as is the Coast Line on which The Starlight runs between Salinas and San Luis Obispo. Other than those, Amtrak service is nearly all on Class 5 and above. In fact, most Amtrak trains are running on concrete ties for almost the entire trip.

      1. You could add the Southwest Chief on the Raton line and in Kansas, and Michigan services.

        BNSF is trying to sell the Raton Pass line to New Mexico and Amtrak needs to pick up larger maintenance costs there. In Kansas, BNSF has imposed speed restrictions on a section of track that sees less freight service.

        In Michigan, NS is trying to abandon some track (around Kalamazoo IIRC), and has imposed speed restrictions as it has reduced maintenance.

      2. Maybe “deteriorating” was too narrow a term. I’m not a railway engineer. I meant, that all Amtrak lines should be improved the way the Seattle-Oregon border segment has been due to various investments by Amtrak, the state, and federal government. Seattle to the Oregon border is uniformly “fast” now in a way it didn’t used to be, and that only exists in small portions of the Seattle-Vancouver BC line (I think around Silvana). I’ve only ridden the Empire Builder once and it was dark, so I can’t say for sure about the Seattle-Spokane segment.

        But my point is that we (the US at all levels) should invest in improving Amtrak’s entire track network the same way we’ve been investing in the Seattle-Portland segment for the past two decades. Cross-country HSR may or may not be realistic, but setting a 90 mph goal in at least the populated regions would improve Amtrak’s travel time and make more people choose rail.

  20. Our day of reckoning is here, but we, yes WE all have kicked the can down the road for so many years by electing governing officials who have taxed and spent us into this mess. Now, as predicted, certain folks are in the first step of denial saying “they want to cut what program ???!!!”. What we ALL first need to understand is how deeply in debt we are – on all levels – to fully understand the level of cutting that needs to be done (i.e. address the problem correctly, then act correctly, etc.). While we are going through that very painful period, we also need to eliminate and elect those from any party who are not fiscally responsible. The unconscious yearning to be like California or Greece is a product of absolute stupidity. Any ideology that directly or indirectly thinks one plus one is anything but two, needs to go away fast. So given the above, let’s see who is truly sincere in starting the civil discussion of cutting Trillions (a hip number concerning spending these days …) from the budget(s). I would assume (& hope) that only those with a strong backbone (in their brain), have recognized the urgency, have lots of common sense, are grounded in logic, are rational thinkers, and most importantly are Constitutionally aware (abiding by THE process) will lead the discussion on what should be cut.

    1. We got in this situation by irresponsibly cutting taxes, then outspending our means. As you say, the lame duck congress just kicked the can down the road again.

      I’m all for fiscally responsible spending, but there’s two sides to that coin.

    2. What some people call “taxing and spending” means adding runs to Metro routes, creating Link, extending library hours, running public health clinics, etc. In other words, they’re real services with a real benefit. Some people say, “The government can’t produce, it only takes and redistributes.” But if one bridge is built by a private company and another bridge is built by government, what’s the difference between the bridges? They both function, so how can you say one isn’t “productive”? Of course there’s inefficiencies and waste that can be squeezed out, but to just say all spending increases are useless and bad is false. If we really eliminated all functions of the federal government except national defense, there would be no meat inspections, no weather service, etc. Would you trust an industry group to inspect meat?

  21. Long before any tax cutting occurred in the last 50 years (yes even before JFK), the U.S. Government began overspending and “suddenly” forgetting fiscal responsibility. Like confiscating all gold in 1933 (in the name of what?), or leaving the gold standard in 1914 after several years of unprecedented economic growth with relatively free trade in goods, labor, and capital. Yes, the beginning of the caustic and very screwed-up world of the Progressive (i.e. Regressive) which, again came from both parties.
    I’ve always raised the bar on any political or economic discussion from the grade school level to the mature adult level by forcing the discussion to focus on concepts the work and that don’t, with (all – not some) facts riding behind them. That way illogical or irrational behavior gets quickly weeded out. Otherwise, we drop into a “stick and stones, etc…” or being polarized into color based (red vs blue) discussion which is a step backwards from around the 4th grade (circa mid 1960’s) or 10th grade (circa now).
    My work environment is designing and maintaining data systems at a local large Aerospace company. We are always self-checking our logical approach to what and where each dollar is spent. We base it on our group’s Mission, Values, Strategic, and Tactical statements, which are vertically aligned with the higher level statements (i.e. Founding documents).
    This blog is about us wanting the highest worth or value of transportation for each tax or toll dollar we give to the City and State governments. We must direct the discussion to what are the State and Cities priorities in spending and be constantly aware of the proper decision process that it should follow. Not following the current Constitution (i.e. a structured process with rules and guidelines) leaves only the slippery slope of the consensus majority, subjectively making the decisions with zero to no accountability. Gee, isn’t this the same scenario to why certain folks left Europe to form this country? Of course it is!!! Tyranny stinks anytime and everywhere. We were supposed to have learned this in High School or thereabouts.

    It is now time to head back to chalkboard and re-learn history. Gather around …

    1. The problem with the gold standard is that the money supply can’t contract and expand as the population increase or GDP changes. So you end up with not enough money and those without are dirt poor, and regions without have to issue scrip as substitute money. Several European countries had fixed gold-tied exchange rates which were seriously out of whack with their economy’s size in the 30s, which was one of the reasons for the Great Depression.

  22. Be partisan. Republicans and their faux-deficit hawk allies are worthless.

    Ultimately, they’d fund nothing but handouts to white baby boomers, the military and prisons if given a chance. So don’t give them a chance.

  23. “I’m not pitting long-distance service against regional service. I agree that improving regional service is higher priority and will help the most people for the least amount of money. But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore long-distance service entirely and let it wither.”

    what would be considered a regional train benefitting the-many people under amtraks current service areas…or even a new ones??
    is a seattle-portland such a case?? or is there little traffice between those two cities??

    would certain links in texas (dallas-houston type?)/lousiana(n. orleans) be such??

    would greater frequency of shorter trains into chicago make some subsidy-funding reducing/increased profit sense??

    1. Commuter rail connects parts of a single metropolitan area, as in Sounder. Regional rail connects multiple metropolitan areas within a 500 mile or so distance, as in Amtrak Cascades. A Seattle-Spokane or Seattle-Pasco route would be regional. California has several regional routes: Pacific Surfliner (southern Cal), San Joaquin (Central Valley), and Capitol Corridor (San Jose-Sacramento).

      If the cities are large, by definition there’s traffic between them, and a regional train makes sense. One end may also extend to a small city, as in Eugene OR. A Dallas or Gulf States line would be regional.

      1. Er, a Texas or Gulf States line would be regional, just like the Northeast Corridor from DC to Boston is.

      2. A Dallas to San Antonio corridor would be regional in the same sense that Cascades or the Illinois routes are. Likewise Austin to New Orleans, if something like the Texas T-Bone gets built.

      3. “I’m not pitting long-distance service against regional service. I agree that improving regional service is higher priority …….

        someone said here earlier that they belive some experts say that long distance trains are what hurts amtrak the most.

        but do most on the long distance routes/trains not travel the entire route??

        do the long distance trains essiantially operate as regional trains based on their route structure or would doing away with a 2100 mile train and breaking it up in to perhaps more frequent shorter/regional trains be a better way to get more riders and reduce subsidies??

        i have a good idea about what a regional train is….a train from vancouver to san fran cisco would be a long train but still serve what could be a regional route within that long train.

        i was asking though is that the best way to do regional trains by having them be a long distance train that continues to another so-called region or is it better (as in serve more people , get more profit and reduce subsidies) to focus on actul shorter train routes that wither turn around or dont offer sleep service….what ever it is that makes a resional train a regional train as opposed to the long distance train that happens to serve regional route or line???

  24. It’s like shooting a dog in the foot and then complaining that it can’t win races anymore. ”

    shooting a lame dog, or a sick dog perhaps and claiming it cant race anymore perhaps.

  25. “One group of experts say Amtrak’s long-distance trains have the least riders and highest costs compared to regional trains (with the Empire Builder the worst performer). Another group of experts say the opposite, that long-distance trains generate ridership for the regional trains, and the regional trains would suffer if the long-distance trains were eliminated. ”

    maybe they arent experts at all. i can get from raleigh to dc by train…but to get teh capitol limited it only gives my 2 hours (amtrak website wont build a raleigh to reno ticket). to get on the limited to chicago (to go on to reno).

    my experience with the amtrak train thus far has been poor…a claimed suicide in indiana made me late to get a piedmont/carolinan fom dc to raleigh…ended up spending 6 hours in charlotte on a bench. becuase of some criminals.

    i will be bussing to dc to return to reno to get a extra 50 minutes for connection to the capitol limited> to go to chicago to get the zephyr.

    in my case i dont see how a long distance train as you claim some experts say generates any ridership for any regional train.

  26. “One group of experts say Amtrak’s long-distance trains have the least riders and highest costs compared to regional trains (with the Empire Builder the worst performer). Another group of experts say the opposite, that long-distance trains generate ridership for the regional trains……

    those dont sound like opposites.

  27. Did scott t. actually insinuate that Amtrak officials were criminals because of a suicide?! Are Freightliner employees criminals when someone runs across the freeway and is struck by a truck? Is he honestly complaining about delays of an hour or less on a multiday route? How about all those airline flights that end up with delays for technical reasons? Are some people so used to them that they are invisible or something?

    The rantings of the mostly illiterate aside, Amtrak is best thought of as a series of regional networks connected by long-distance routes. Without the long-distance routes, Amtrak cannot hope to compete with even Greyhound and its built in subsidy (i.e. road money) let alone long-distance driving. Frankly, right now it IS more or less competitive with those forms of transportation so long as there are long-distance routes.

    Oh and “free market” Republicans like Bernie would LOVE to replace the long-distance routes with luxury trains in order to drive the riff-raff off the trains and onto the Dog. That would be an OK use for Amtrak in their mind. Having ridden the Empire Builder, it is a pretty working-class route in coach. It’s competitive with Greyhound in price (and about the same as a discount airline special). Oh yes, since the Dog abandoned US-2, it is the ONLY mass transit route for a bunch of isolated rural communities (some, like Whitefish, have HUGE ridership due to locals and tourism) and a couple of ~100k to ~200k metro areas like Grand Forks and Fargo.

    Of course, in the world of the subsidizers of the rich, the working poor can piss off (as long as they pay their taxes!).

    Look, cutting Amtrak is part of the same class warfare that drives all Republican decisions. It is not enough that being poor or without a car is difficult, it should be actively punished. That should teach them to stay in their place.

  28. they (the train employees…or those on the train with amtrak uniforms) claimed it was a suicide on the tracks. i didnt believe them and still dont.

    i can take a greyhound from raleigh to washington dc and get the capitol limited to chicago and then get on the zephyr to reno. amtrak wont build a raleigh to reno itineraty unless i do two separate tickets…the greyhound gives me 50 minutes more leeway (amtrak wont hold a train)time. i have only been on one amtrak train under 50 minutes late.

    “The rantings of the mostly illiterate aside, Amtrak is best thought of as a series of regional networks connected by long-distance routes.”

    i guess that what it is. some long distance routes and some regional routes…duh. oh, and they are connected too. neat.

    what i was wondering specifically was if the long distance routes are less profitable than focusing on just regional routes and increasing frequency there?

    is it a more subsidy reducing, profit generating and more riders served to cut out sections of LD routes and just have increased regional frequncy??

    i saw that greyhound serves 60 towns between montana and north dakota both…with so much open space i expect the vast majority pop. centers of those two large states are served via a bus.

    or are the LD trains already structured as regional routes that just happen to travel over extended distance..about once a day for the zephyr and builder and maybe some others routes.

    i dont see where the LD aspect has anything to do with greyhound competition…the train already doenst really compete.

    a zephyr fare cost me about the same as a southwest ticket reno to raleigh and was 3.5 days longer.

    i asked earlier and havent got an answer really…are the LD trains the best way to operate the regional routes…or is cutting segments out of some of the LD trains+increasing regional frequency more profitable and more likely to reduce subsidies and increase ridership.

    i gave a for instance…..the zephyr. san fran to reno twice a day for instance.
    cut out reno to denver, for instance. keep a denver to (via omaha) chicago, for instance once a day..and a once a day just from denver to omaha.

    i was wondering if there is any info that would indicate if that could/would be better….while no-more-expensive-than-a-car or bus rail-fares and without highway snow.

    1. for instance once a day..and a once a day just from denver to omaha….

      or an additional train from omaha to chicago..depending on which segment has the most riders on it.

    2. Look, it’s not the staff’s fault that you are a [ad hom]. I mean, I guess you are free to think that they are liars and criminals but you are going to have justify your belief to make me and everyone else not think you are nuts. You haven’t justified this by the way.

      First, I think we all see that you want magical trains that work like jets. Sorry, long-haul trains don’t work like jets anywhere. Even in Europe, long-haul trains that cover distances similar to the Empire Builder and California Zephyr are meant to be competitive with buses and cars (and actually usually beat the pants off them).

      Actually, your whining about delays of a few hours in a multi-day trip is an argument for greater investment in speed. With increased speed, delays stay fairly constant as a percentage of trip time but their absolute numbers drop.

      Brief thought experiment ([ad hom]). What would be your reaction to a Southwest flight that, because of weather delays or whatever, took 6 hours instead of 3? The same weather causes a drive to take 60 hours instead of 48. What would your reaction be to that? How is a delay of literally 100% better or worse than a delay of 25%?

      I’m sorry this isn’t clear to you but our transit infrastructure for every other mode is more or less national. Your suggestion is akin to cutting out Sound Transit from the regional transit network because it would be better for each of the subareas to spend the ST money on internal improvements. While there is a certain logic to that, it ignores actual human transit patterns.

      Further, why stop at Reno? Aren’t you sort of missing a sizable metro area between California and Denver to stop at a metro area of 200k. Your plan isn’t even self-justifying.

      Oh, and why this Republican talk about lowering subsidies? The airlines receive massive direct subsidies which artificially keep their prices low. And tons of indirect subsidies. Buses receive tons of the latter through the huge amounts sunk into interstates. Yet, trains always have to lower their subsidies.


  29. you call it whining, i call it a significant dealy on every amtrak i was on (ad hom). delays that caused me to miss another train with a scheduled to leave three hours after the train was to arrive. a THREE HOUR PLANE DELAY STILL GET ME THERE 3 DAYS BEFORE TEH LONG DISTANCE TRAIN. (AD HOM).

    [ad hom, ot ranting]

    my qusestion was would amtrak be more likely to run without subsidies and more profitable if LD trains werent used and increased regional trains were.

    nothing magical at all about that.

    natuyral trasit patterns?? busses serve 60 cities in montqana and north dakaota. is that unnatural?? can greyhond go out of business but amtrak cant??

  30. First, Greyhound dumped US-2 because it was unprofitable, by the way! Also, you seem to be missing the point, Greyhound has received MASSIVE subsidies in the form of interstate construction while Amtrak has not gotten much in terms of capital subsidies. Are you denying this?

    Second, late planes caused missed connections ALL the time and with the hub and spoke system that often means a layover of an extra day. Should we scrap transcontinental flights in favor of regional networks because of this? Also, don’t forget about airline subsidies!

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