George Will Strikes Out Re: Amtrak.
There was a time when George Will wrote columns that were entertaining and made sense. Of course, those were the ones about baseball, a subject of which he has considerable knowledge. After a Will column that appeared a week ago, cleverly called “Off the Rails at Amtrak”, it’s quite clear that George Will knows next to nothing about either Amtrak or passenger rail in general.
His argument, boiled down to its essence, is this: Amtrak loses money, therefore, Amtrak is a failure and should be shut down. A spot-on analysis and rebuttal to the column by J. Howard Harding, long-time NARP member, immediately identified the fundamental problem Will has with Amtrak. Harding describes the Will screed as “yet another recitation of his ideological disdain for Amtrak, unsupported by careful factual analysis, thus demonstrating once more that ‘Great ignorance induces great certainty.’ ”
Frankly, by suggesting that George Will is ignorant of the facts, I think Harding gives Will more credit than he deserves.
Will labels Amtrak a failure based on the fact that, when Congress created Amtrak back in 1970, they decreed that this new national passenger rail system should operate at a profit. Wouldn’t it be nice if that’s all it took! Congress simply passes a law and repeals the Law of Gravity. The fact is—and this evidently escaped Will’s notice—there is no national passenger rail system in the world that operates at a profit. Not one.
That’s because, by definition, a national network of passenger trains serves an entire country, including smaller cities and towns without the concentrated population to provide the volume of ridership necessary for the system as a whole to break even or make a profit. A national system like Amtrak is public transportation . . . and public transportation does not … cannot … and will never operate at a profit.
Still—through ignorance or simply because it runs counter to their chosen ideology—conservatives like George Will label Amtrak a failure when, in fact, they ought to be praising the system because it operates so close to break-even. Howard Harding knows that’s true. Quoting him again: “Amtrak operating revenues currently cover about 91 percent of its operating costs. No other urban or national intercity rail passenger service here or elsewhere on this planet does as well.”
Do you think that simple truth could have escaped the notice of George Will? Neither do I.
George Will’s sanctimonious posturing on the Potomac by dredging up the economic misnomer from 1970 when Congress mandated Amtrak’s birth to be as a “for profit” entity, merely evidences the perpetual lack of institutional knowledge of transportation by the current national media and politicians. Even back in 2003, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) succinctly defined the issue: “we must build it (“Amtrak”) for success, not failure.”
If George Will had such a justified visceral reaction to subsidies, instead of attacking the barebones going to Amtrak, why not highlight the serious and conflicting duplicity of crony forms of subsidies at the taxpayers expense, such as:
-Sugar, Ethanol, and Oil subsidies go to the same states whose members of Congress vote against Amtrak.
-Essential Air Service Programs to the same towns down the road from a major airport in states whose members of Congress howl at Amtrak and seek to literary become the chefs in the diner galley.
-Export-Import Bank providing low cost loans to wealthy, oil producing countries to purchase jets from Boeing; to use those jets to manipulate market competition against our own legacy airlines.
-City of Charlotte, NC forgiving American Airlines on multiple millions of dollars in taxes due on jet fuel to “encourage” its hub there.
With a modicum of effort, Mr. Will could have even identified the fact that Amtrak, and some commuter lines, are the only modes of transport that even pay real user fees, as required to our Class 1 private railroads for track access and dispatching. Given that Mr. Will has no concept of what the “National Network of Connecting Trains” even means, I would not even line a birdcage with this editorial.