OK … Why Don’t We Privatize Amtrak?

Following the tragic accident last week near Philadelphia, conservatives have once again started to call for privatizing Amtrak. There’s an article in Forbes magazine with that as the subject and of course the libertarian “think tanks” and all the usual suspects in Congress are banging on that drum again.
The thing is, it’s never going to happen. Those folks must know that deep down in their little ideological hearts and if they don’t, they’re either delusional or smoking something.
When you hear someone talk about privatizing Amtrak, you have to understand that all they really want is the Northeast Corridor: Boston-New York-Washington. And that means if Amtrak is ever privatized, you can forget about the long-distance trains. With privatization, they’re history. Oh, theoretically it’s possible that someone might consider cherry-picking a couple of choice routes linking major urban centers—Los Angeles-San Diego or Chicago-Milwaukee could be possibilities, I suppose, or St. Louis-Chicago—but the rest of the country? Collectively screwed.
We constantly hear, even from those who probably know better, that the Northeast Corridor should be privatized because it operates at a profit. That’s also nonsense! If you believe the Amtrak accountants (and a lot of people don’t) revenues from the NEC exceed operating costs. But there are a couple of other very relevant factors to consider.
For one thing, Amtrak’s long-distance network feeds passengers into Northeast Corridor trains, and if the long-distance network goes away, the Northeast Corridor will lose some share of that business.
Then there’s the matter of Amtrak’s equipment, much of which is old and needs replacing.
But the real issue—the big bull elephant in the room—is the issue of the Northeast Corridor’s infrastructure. By that, I mean the repair, maintenance and upkeep of the 450-or-so miles of tracks and catenary, tunnels and bridges between Boston and Washington. Amtrak estimates that more than fifty billion dollars is needed just to bring everything up to a state of good repair.
So what do you think? Will a prospective buyer take on all that?
Absolutely … when pigs fly!