Commentary by Paul Dyson
I have previously quoted New Zealand scientist Ernest Rutherford, “We had no money so we had to think”, and this struck a chord with a lot of readers. Regardless of the field of human endeavor to which you might apply this aphorism it is a good starting point. Try to do as much as you can with as little as possible.
So when I read the L.A. Times earlier this week conveying the news that the already enormous state budget deficit will grow even larger next year I wondered to myself how Mr. Rutherford would have reacted. The headline to this commentary is the best I could come up with, but I hope it conveys the message.
The State of California has an enormous debt load, and as a result the cost of borrowing even more money is becoming prohibitive. In order to fend off catastrophe the State Government has to make more spending cuts, and it seems almost certain that this time around the Intercity Rail Program will become a target. We have been very fortunate so far to avoid any cuts in service or even the complete cancellation of the program. And if cuts are proposed, can we honestly argue that intercity rail is more important than prisons, universities, or many other services that the state provides? Noel Braymer commented the other day that deficits usually increase if individual trains are cut and while I agree with the statement the reality is that cuts will probably come. Unfortunately the State Government is no more sensible about making cuts than it is about spending more money than it takes in. The operation will be successful but the patient will die.
What are we to do then, as passenger rail advocates? I think we should look to the first principles of this organization and see how we can maintain the services we have, even expand them, by greater efficiency, less overhead, and more value for money. Secondly, we can reasonably campaign for a greater share of federal passenger rail dollars to be spent on national network routes within California.
How would this work? I believe, and have stated so many times here, that we can sell more tickets to passengers (always the best way of financing passenger rail) if our disparate passenger rail agencies cooperated in scheduling, marketing and advertising. Let’s have a combination of ACE, Capitol Corridor, and Caltrain in the north, Metrolink, Surfliner and Coaster in the south. Let’s operate the same number of train miles but on schedules that maximize the utility and matrix to serve a greater number of passengers. We should also campaign for coordinated procurement of rolling stock and other supplies to use purchasing power to drive down costs, and to reduce head office overhead.
The second part of the action plan involves the federal government and California’s large but generally ineffective congressional delegation. I am certain that if you asked the majority of these fine elected officials how the Capitol Corridor, Surfliner and San Joaquin trains are paid for they would answer that they vote for them each year as part of the Amtrak funding process. It’s not surprising. Just how many minutes per week do you think the average legislator devotes to passenger rail issues, and right now they only concern is with High Speed Rail. It is our job to change that. We must educate our state delegation with the facts. Where do the Amtrak funds go? Why does California pay so much and receive so little? How can we grow the Amtrak pie by about $50 million per year to take over 50% of the state rail program? Why can’t we justifiably argue that, in the same way the Acela expanded the NEC service, part of the national system, by the same token Surfliner expanded the original San Diegan service, which was also part of the original national system? If the NEC and New York State trains can receive federal operating support then so can our national system trains, even though they are intrastate.
This is where you come in, dear reader. We need help finding some friendly elected officials to carry some much needed amendments to Amtrak legislation. This can include eliminating some nonsenses from the previous administration that micromanage dining car service, and it should include reinstatement of the Sunset east of New Orleans. But most of all it should provide for more federal level funding for our corridor trains as well as for other state funded services such as the Heartland Flyer. It’s time we reestablished the philosophy that Amtrak is a federal program to provide a national network of intercity train service. Trying to push this obligation down to the state level is a mistake that needs to be rectified immediately.