Monday, July 01, 2002

More from Chris Suellentrop's Salon article on Amtrak: He refers to railroad planning author Anthony Perl, who points out, as Suellentrop puts it:

With air travel and road travel, the government provides the infrastructure, and the private sector moves the passengers. The government runs the airports, and the private sector flies the planes. The government builds the highways, and the private sector handles the cars, trucks, and buses. But with passenger rail, we've got it backward. The government (Amtrak) runs the trains, and the private sector (the freight railroads) owns the rails, except in the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston. That creates a double whammy—the private companies don't have the deep pockets or the interest in maintaining the infrastructure needed for a viable passenger rail system, and the government doesn't have the market incentives to be entrepreneurial or customer-focused. The result is a lot of decrepit tracks and routes that respond to political, rather than consumer, demands.

Suellentrop recommends dismantling Amtrak and allowing the private sector to fill in the vacuum with better-run, profit-minded organizations. My question is, where is the army of investors who would jump at this opportunity? They don't exist. Without a sure bet to go on, breaking up Amtrak is premature. Besides, post-9/11 fear of flight or at least dread of lines at the airport, plus a backlash against gas-slurping SUV's, mean train transit is an idea that could be sold anew to Americans.

And, as responses to the Salon piece point out, beating up on Amtrak (albeit a poorly-run outfit) is a bizarre overreaction to the rather ordinary phenomenon of government subsidies for less-than-ideally-run organizations:

"The airlines are still essentially a government agency that is bleeding the taxpayers. They may be called "private", they may sell stock, and they may get to keep their profits (when they come along). However, when it comes time to sink or swim, they are a government agency propped up by tax dollars. If United ends up with 1.8 billion in loan guarantees (on top of the Sept. 11 pork), it would take a large amount of willful ignorance to say that the airlines are a model for private success."

"Chris Suellentrop calls Amtrak 'a government-owned corporation that lost more than $1 billion last year.' Does that make the Department of Defense the goverment body that lost more than $288 billion last year?"

Salon article and responses

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