The fatal derailment of Amtrak Train 188 in Philadelphia, which three weeks ago left eight people dead, has generated a lot of talk about more funding, reorganizing, or privatizing the nation’s passenger rail service. But it’s likely the talk will produce very little.
Periodically, there is talk in Congress about privatizing at least the most successful portion of Amtrak — the 457-mile Northeast Corridor connecting Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. But beyond loud speeches about Amtrak’s many deficiencies, there is little movement to accomplish that goal.
In fact, you don’t hear much about privatization from the freight railroads, which one would think would be the most interested in acquiring Amtrak. Could it be that the major railroads such as CSX, Union Pacific, and Norfolk Southern remember their history better than some of the privatization zealots calling for Amtrak to be sold?
That history includes the reason Amtrak came into existence in 1971 — the private railroads wanted to ditch passenger service because it was a drain on their bottom lines. Passenger rail travel remains cost prohibitive except for in the densely populated Northeast, where catching a train is a viable alternative to driving or flying.
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The creation of Amtrak allowed the railroads to concentrate on freight, a much more lucrative proposition. Meanwhile, Amtrak was told it must make a profit to justify its public subsidy even though privately provided passenger service had not been profitable in many places since the competition was a horse and buggy.
But the profitability directive isn’t the only example of unrealistic expectations for Amtrak. The Train 188 tragedy revealed that the section of track where the Philadelphia derailment occurred didn’t have a government-required positive train control system, which could have slowed the speeding train and prevented it from derailing.
Congress ordered all railroads to install PTC by the end of 2015 after a California train wreck seven years ago killed 25 people. But Congress neither provided enough funds to buy the radio band width for PTC, nor did it give the Federal Communications Commission authority to order bandwidth owners to relinquish a portion of their property for public safety.
How does it make sense that governments rather routinely obtain other private property under eminent domain laws to build houses and shops that supposedly serve the public’s interest, but Congress and the FCC would not do more to help railroads acquire the radio spectrum needed to operate PTC, which saves lives?
Congress is actually on the verge of cutting Amtrak’s subsidy, knowing it needs to upgrade tracks that are also used by freight trains carrying hazardous materials that could devastate communities if spilled. What sense does that make?