Privatize Rail? Not A Bad Idea, A TERRIBLE Idea.

Both the U.S. House and Senate have now passed a bill that provides Amtrak with a reasonable amount of subsidy and, probably just as important, makes a five-year commitment for that funding. Thankfully, both houses passed the measure with sufficient votes to override a threatened Bush veto. (Don’t get me started!)

However, as a sop to the Republican ideologues, there is a provision in the measure that opens the door to the possible privatization of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the railroad’s busiest route, running between Washington and New York or Boston.

Amtrak’s president, Alex Kummant, was asked about that in a recent interview and had a simple response: “Guess what? If you peel [a profitable route] out and privatize it, your costs for running the rest of the network just went up.”

In other words: Republicans are (a) unhappy at the cost of Amtrak’s subsidy, so they (b) turn Amtrak’s busiest route over to private enterprise, which (c) increases the amount of subsidy it takes to run the rest of the system.

British Railways, the national passenger rail system equivalent to Amtrak in England, was broken up and privatized between 1994 and 1997. At the time, the Conservative government under John Major said the level of service would surely improve when the railroads were operated by private companies.

Oh, really?

News from London today includes a report by Passenger Focus, an independent watchdog organization that surveys nearly 25,000 British rail travelers twice every year. The results are hardly a ringing endorsement of Britain’s privatized railroads.

Highlights: Of the 30 areas of service asked about in the survey, 10 showed no improvement over the previous survey and 20 showed further decline from previous poor ratings.

Lowlights: 60% of the people surveyed said the price of the ticket did not justify their traveling experience; 66% were unhappy with the delays; and 62% were unhappy with railroad staff.

Do you suppose that, for once, the powers-that-be in this country will look and learn from the experiences of others? We can only hope … and hope, they say, springs eternal.