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Rail Passenger Service is a Non-Partisan Issue

Editoral by Noel T. Braymer

With the Presidential Elections coming up at the end of this year, there is bound to be discussion of the positions the candidates have about Amtrak and rail passenger service. This has been highlighted by reports of opposition of the candidacy of John McCann by noted Conservative Republican and Rail Passenger Advocate Paul Weyrich because Senator McCann is “Anti-Amtrak”. RailPAC is a non-partisan organization. We are friends with politicians of all parties. We also have disagreements with politicians from all parties. What we at RailPAC have learned over the years is to not depend on any one political party for a balanced, economical rail passenger service.

Let’s take a look at the political history of rail passenger service to demonstrate this point. The first President to get involve with rail passenger service was Democrat Lyndon Johnson around 1965.This was for funding the Metroliner Trains on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s North East Corridor. Johnson’s reason for supporting the Metroliner was political. There was strong local support for improved rail service and at this time the North East had the largest concentration of population in the country as well as 18 Senators if you count the states from Virginia to Massachusetts. This was the first time the federal government at least in the 20th Century supported rail passenger service with money, it wouldn’t be the last.

The President who was responsible for the creation of Amtrak was Republican Richard Nixon. President Nixon’s motivation for creating Amtrak was largely as part of a bail out of the recently bankrupt PennCentral Railroad around 1970. To make Amtrak more politically appealing it was decided to make it a national and not just a regional operation. The first President to propose major cutbacks of Amtrak service was Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1979. These proposals created a storm of opposition and demonstrated the broad appeal in the Country for rail passenger service. It should be noted that the subsidy for Amtrak had grown dramatically during the Carter Administration. A major reason for this was the decision to dump the North East Corridor on Amtrak to help the newly created Conrail (the new name of the reorganized PennCentral) become profitable around 1976. Amtrak charged many of the costs of the NEC onto the Long Distance Trains based on train miles. The result was this made it look like the Long Distance Trains were causing most of Amtrak’s costs. While not as drastic as proposed by the Carter Administration, some cuts were made. These resulted in no significant cost savings, but a major reduction in revenue which left Amtrak worse off than before.

The 1980’s were the times of the Republican Presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior. Despite fears that Reagan would “kill Amtrak”; ironically the 80’s were if anything the golden age of Amtrak. The reason for this was the bipartisan working relationship of a Democrat, Amtrak President Graham Claytor and Reagan’s Federal Railroad Administration’s Chief, John Riley. Claytor had the unique skills of being politically well connected and having been a successful businessman in the railroad industry. John Reily was a relatively young lawyer from Minneapolis with a strong love of trains and passenger service. Both men understood that the NEC was the major cost of Amtrak and that not much could be done politically to change that. They also knew that the Long Distance Trains were the cash cows of Amtrak. During this time the Superliners were almost brand new. Amtrak had more equipment available then than now and a larger route system than today. With modest improved connections and extended services Amtrak’s revenues went up and the need for Federal Subsidy went down in the 1980’s.

The 90’s was the era of President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. The Clinton administration was interested in rail passenger corridor service, but not in long distance trains. The Acela program was the hallmark of the Clinton era which was to create high speed corridor service in several metropolitan areas. When the Acela was being designed there was suppose to be a diesel powered trainset as a prototype for additional corridors. The Acela almost bankrupted Amtrak. Since 2002 Amtrak has been on a long slow process of recovery.
What is remarkable about the 1990’s was the explosion of Light Rail and Commuter Rail services. All of these were grass root, very local affairs in both Red and Blue States. California was the leader in this effort and helped inspire people in other parts of the County. Most of the progress in rail passenger service comes from local, non-partisan efforts. As one project succeeds, this inspires additional projects.

Back in the 1930’s when Democrat Franklin Roosevelt was President; he would often tell people when they asked him to do something to “make me.” What he meant by that is he needed a show of support that people were demanding action before he could do anything. We have to make politicians do things. The more towns that own train stations and have businesses that thrive near stations will increase the support for more and better rail service. As the subsidy needs of Amtrak goes down as long distance service expands, Amtrak will be politically more secure. The more successful rail passenger service is seen, the more people will demand it. And it all won’t matter who is the President or even which party is in control.

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