Last Handout to Clarksville?

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I try to keep politics out of my posts for this site. In this one case, I'll just mention that I've been less than enamoured with Bush's budgetary policies. Which is a way of saying that I found this bit of news all the more refreshing:

Bush Budget to Scrap Subsidy for Amtrak-Sources

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration will for the first time propose eliminating operating subsidies for passenger train operator Amtrak as part of a push to cut budget deficits, people close to the budget process said on Tuesday.

I recently took a trip to Savannah, GA, from DC on Amtrak. Aside from being thrilled and grateful that it didn't derail, I spent most of the time simply stunned that it had been allowed to function for so long. At the height of holiday travel, the train was maybe 60% full coming out of DC, and got worse as it got further south. In general, the train system is tedious, slow, and most importantly, priced very similarly to air travel for the distance that I wanted to go.

I won't be sorry to see this thing shut down. Since Amtrak only owns the Northeast corridor tracks (the rest being owned primarily by private companies like CSX), I'm guessing that area (which also has the nicest trains, best times, and most convenient stations) won't be shuttered entirely. If there's no demand to cover the cost that it takes to run the railway, I can see no reason to continue paying to keep the system in place.

One of the arguments for the handouts I traditionally see is that it brings the rail to almost on par with road and air travel, since those systems get a good deal of government support through paying to build and re-pave roads or improving the national airspace system. Of course, the government consumes far more of these services than it does the rail way. In terms of the airspace system, as I've noted before, there is a serious coordination issue at stake that make it (to some extent) worth spending the money to avoid the potential downside of coordination failure. Additionally, the airspace system is running at near capacity, which means that dollars spent go towards expanding capacity, throughput and performance of a heavily taxed system. While I do think there is plenty of room for the private sector to function here, if we're going to ignore debating first-best solutions, and some form of handout is going to be made, it seems a far better use of money to push the limits of air travel than to pour money down the black hole of rail travel.

In any event, I appreciate the cut in subsidies. Now, on to farms, airlines, textiles, anti-dumping legislation and...what, too hopeful?

1 Comment

This ought to be good. The last time this was floated (2-3 years back) the radio and tv were full of interviews of anguished people, in Grand Central, over the loss of the train. Nobody in airports or on the turnpike was interviewed.

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