Republicans: Privatizing Amtrak Will Bring High Speed Rail to the NE Faster

Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - 04:53 PM

(photo by Steven Vance/Flickr)

Republicans said today that privatizing the Northeast Corridor would bring high-speed rail to the country faster -- and more cheaply -- than Amtrak can.

Congressman John Mica, the chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has never hidden his disdain for Amtrak -- or his enthusiasm for partnering with the private sector.  In a statement today, he said:  “After 40 years of highly-subsidized, poorly-managed Amtrak operations, it’s time for Congress to change the direction of America’s failed high-speed and intercity passenger rail service...After spending billions of dollars, Amtrak and its snail speed, last-century level of service have reached the end of the line.”

The plan, which Mica unveiled today along with Congressman Bill Shuster, is called the  “Competition for Intercity Passenger Rail in America Act.”  The pair introduced it in a video conference.

A draft of the legislation can be found here.

The goal is to separate the Northeast Corridor -- Amtrak's busiest route -- from the rest of the system, transfer title from Amtrak to the US Department of Transportation, and put development of high-speed rail along the corridor out for bid. Republicans said this plan would increase ridership, lower costs, and bring fast trains to the corridor in less than ten years.

Amtrak, which had been going on the offensive this week about its high-speed rail plans for the Northeast Corridor, reacted swiftly to Mica's proposal. Joseph Boardman, Amtrak's president and CEO, aired his dismay in a  phone conference call held earlier this afternoon.  "There seems to be a lack of recognition that Amtrak is the right organization to deliver better intercity passenger rail service in this country," he said. Boardman said that Amtrak had made headway in reducing debt and improving equipment, and was already looking at a public-private partnership for high-speed rail in the Northeast. "This asset, this transportation artery is critical, and that ... is lost in this, because the focus of this particular proposal is about financing and real estate, not transportation first."

Democrats did not greet the proposal warmly. New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, who sits on the Senate's transportation committee, said that "the Republican proposal to privatize rail on the Northeast Corridor would increase costs for passengers and make rail travel less reliable. I will fight in the Senate to stop any plan that threatens Amtrak and commuters on the Northeast Corridor."

Other responses were more measured, if lukewarm. Petra Todorovich, a high-speed rail expert at the Regional Plan Association, said "we don't think it's the worst idea in the world." She added that Mica's proposal was useful in that "he's starting a conversation about what it would take to implement world-class high speed rail in the Northeast Corridor. This is the first time we’ve had this conversation at the congressional level.” But she added that "I think it's unlikely that private companies would bid unless federal money is on the table. You can't have a public/private partnership without public money."







Comments [4]

David Nice

The proposal to privatize the Northeast Corridor makes little or no sense to me. There doesn't seem to be any US company willing and able to run a high-speed rail system without putting its hand in Uncle Sam's pocket, and I don't think putting a foreign company in charge of a major US transportation asset makes much sense.
I think that the Amtrak system has done a pretty impressive job over the years, especially in view of the repeated attacks on it by ideological purists and cronies of the airline industry and the highway lobby. Lots of ordinary Americans ride Amtrak, and the general public supports it. How many times do we need to have this debate? Why don't these characters propose privatizing the nation's airports? I wonder.

Jan. 16 2012 03:03 PM
Thomas Schlegel

From Amtrak's start there has been an argument about its accounting methods, specifically how it allocates costs between the NE Corridor and the rest of its system. The argument is made that costs are dumped on the long distance trains to make the NE corridor look better.

I have no inside knowledge about whether costs are accurately assigned or not, but it does occur to me that the Mica proposal assumes that Amtrak's losses *are* on long distance services and that a private owner could make money between Boston and Washington. But what if this is not true?

What if this bill does carve out the NE Corridor as a separate (public-private) system and it turns out to be *more* of a money sink than expected and that the rest of the Amtrak system has fewer losses than expected? There will not be Congressional votes for money for the NE outside of that region because it is no longer connected to the national Amtrak system. Will the states organize themselves to support the Corridor? It is kind of hard to imagine.

Jun. 15 2011 08:41 PM
Steve Savasky

My understanding was that when Amtrak was formed the freight railroads were given stock in the new company. The stock isn't worth anything but it does show ownership and the last I heard the government is only a minority owner. That means you can't sell something you don't own. Newt Gingrich tried this back in the '90s and for this reason and it didn't work.

Jun. 15 2011 06:21 PM

I'm up for listening to any valid argument, but you pretty much lose me the second you start with the partisan bullsh*t. I mean "America’s failed high-speed and intercity passenger rail service", seriously? FAILED?! Tons of people use Acela. The NE Corridor has grown A WHOLE LOT in the past few years. Management aside, what's the "failure" exactly? People are choosing trains a lot right now.

This is why I hate Republicans, you can never have an adult, logic-based conversation with them. They just let their partisan hate shine through everything they say.

Jun. 15 2011 05:18 PM

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