The Wrong Reason Is (Far) Right.

Those of us who spend a good deal of our time and energy being advocates for more and better passenger trains, are often frustrated because we don’t seem to make much headway with some of the elected officials who are in a position of influence and, if they wanted to, could actually make things happen.
Rational argument doesn’t get anywhere with them or with community leaders who could, if they made it a priority and worked together, would have us riding fast, efficient, comfortable passenger trains within a decade.
So what’s their problem? Why don’t good, solid arguments penetrate with these people?
I recently came across a provocative theory addressing that question in “The Plot Against Trains”, published some months ago in The New Yorker magazine. The postulate is this: conservatives are philosophically opposed to a successful, popular national passenger rail system for the same reason they hate Obamacare: because it would be a highly visible symbol of an effective, necessary and strong central government.
That really got my attention. For one thing, it could be the unstated rationale behind the law, pushed through Congress by the Republicans, that says any subsidy needed for a passenger train with a route of 750 miles or less must come from the state governments.
So, OK … what if we start phrasing the pro-rail arguments this way:
“Your congressman voted against funding for Amtrak because he wants a weaker federal government. And that’s why you don’t have Amtrak service in your town.”
How do you think people will like being screwed because their legitimate transportation need conflicts with a political ideology?


  1. Way way below transportation issues, the divide is much more philosophical.

    I support urbanism, transportation systems, cities, etc… – which in America makes me Left – because I believe it is both more economically sustainable and productive – AND I believe humans are good at living with each other, and happier/safer when they do. Additionally, I am confident I cam make an overwhelming case for all the above with data.

    The counter belief – that people do not like each other, are better off with maximized autonomy [suburbs!], and effective isolation – then you are an American Conservative. If you drive from your garage to your office, by yourself in your personal vehicle, you minimize contact with the filthy dangerous public. And you have little use for shared/public spaces. Notice how even **elected** Conservative politicians bash public employees [not “servants”] and refer to people not as “citizens” but as “tax-payers”. American Conservatism is deeply linked to Purity Culture and the ideology born from the Clapham Sect. To them – riding a train, let along a **bus**, can only mean you are a failure. To them Public Transportation [which does not include the roads for the virtuously isolating automobile] is always and can only be a form of “Safety Net” welfare for the world’s failures and/or a utility used by those [like me] who oppose the final civilizing of society [aka, maximized “autonomy”, aka “isolation”].

  2. Mr. Selden is a well known and respected constructive critic of the issues engulfing and fogged over by Amtrak. I, as a constructive published pundit, would like to clarify the assumptions expressed here:
    1) The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) was presented to the House of Representatives by James Oberstar (D-MN) on 06/11/2008. In actuality, the Democrats controlled both the House from 2006 and Senate in 2008 (with 2 Independents voting Dem). Therefore, PRIIA was passed by a Democrat-controlled Congress.
    2) To compensate for unmanageable losses emanating from the Northeast Corridor, their is strong reason to believe that Amtrak itself pushed forward the concept of Sec. 206 requiring all non-NEC states to pay for their trains operating under 750 miles. Of course, this was pursuant to Amtrak’s own cost methodologies to continue the myth of GAAP re-defined and the lack of incremental costs, allowing for each train to be charged rack rates.
    3) This would then explain why Congress was never pushed by Amtrak to clarify Sec. 213 allowing for private operators to takeover current Amtrak schedules, or, to develop their own routes. Amtrak has consistently maintained that it is the sole partner with the Class 1s and benefactor of the lower fees charged for trackage slots and dispatching.

    As Amtrak’s new CEO, Wick Moorman, will have his hands full maneuvering out a necrotic, bloated management force while contending with a Board of Directors uninvolved but for their Northeast Corridor embrace, it behooves NARP to stop accepting payment from Amtrak for providing its alleged customer service concept. NARP should become once again a true customer advocate by avoiding any conflict. We learned long ago that Amtrak’s CEO, W. Graham Claytor, decided to throw NARP a bone and bring them “inside the tent” to cease their fierce customer advocacy. Competition for quality service cannot thrive in a one dimensional, monopolistic mindset that discourages dissent.

    1. As a member of NARP’s board of directors. I can only speak for the six years I have been in that position. During that time, I can say without equivocation that NARP has never hesitated to make our feelings known when we have objected to a new policy or procedure implemented by Amtrak management. Cases in point: removal of the dining car on the Silver Star and the systematic elimination of ticket agents at numerous smaller stations around the country. In both cases, we took positions in opposition to those of Amtrak management and made our views public. I have heard the NARP-Is-Amtrak’s-Lap-Dog allegation for years and all I can say is “‘taint true, Mcgee.”

      1. Well, does not exactly reconcile to Mr. Selden’s sentiment as well re “the NARP choir-stall.” In essence, we were informed quite a while ago by former corporate officers at Amtrak that Claytor got so upset with NARP hitting Amtrak over customer advocacy issues (the best was its originator, Anthony Haswell!), that Claytor brought NARP into the tent and paid it to do “customer advisory” to prevent NARP from “tinkling” into the tent. Again, the common thread of thought in terms of true customer advocacy is to remain above a conflict, no different than how it would be perceived if Exxon Mobil financed the Sierra Club. Just like how only in Washington can GAAP be redefined to declare the profitability of the Northeast Corridor before all costs (e.g., infrastructure) are itemized and included.

        For the record:
        – the “Silver Star” continues to run without a diner, and with no plans to alleviate the “Silver Starvation” when the CAF diners are released this year. This despite lower traffic volume than the “Silver Meteor” over the holidays; pathetic redundant service by scheduling the running of both Florida trains two hours apart.
        -the ticket agents have not been returned to any depot and continue to be eliminated across the country, forcing travelers to become acquainted with internet ticketing.

      2. It’s a difficult balance to find between defending the very thing you defend (passenger trains), and criticizing the entity that provides it, in fear to scare away other passengers, but if NARP is critical about Amtrak, it’s not heard too loudly, whether that is conscious decision (often, complaints behind closed doors are met less defensive) or because of a lack of media attention, doesn’t matter that much to the general travelling public, I’m afraid, so yes, I agree at least partly with Mr Singer NARP has a little bit of an image problem. Example, the first time I heard the new ad on Youtube, I thought Dan Ayckroyd mistakenly talked about NARP as if it was Amtrak, I probably wouldn’t have if the video wasn’t looking as if it was an Amtrak ad.

    2. I am a transit advocate – and there are plenty of Advocates which make me think “with advocates like this you don’t need enemies”.

      If you believe Criticism is Advocacy you do not understand what Advocacy is. Hating on Amtrak, your DOT, or your transit agency will not help anyone.


      NARP should be at the table inside the tent; because to be anywhere else is to be less effective.

  3. Jim–Pete shared this with me.
    I suspect that the answer lies in a key assumption, that the arguments advanced by the NARP-school of advocacy are logical and persuasive to objective politicians of any ideology. I submit that they are not, outside of the NARP choir-stall.
    All the silliness about the green benefits and the wonderfulness of the NEC leave most ratuional elected officials cold.
    Most advocates have never articulated a rational thesis of how to achieve a positive rate of return on capital invested into passenger rail, measured financially or in output of passenger transport. The sub-trivial market share for rail–after 40 years and a hundred billion dollars in capital investment–combined with distracting sideshow boondoggles like the CAHSR fiasco–are pretty solid arguments to rational elected politicians that this isn’t a winning program. You don’t need ideology to explan it, just objective empiricism.
    Acela cost about $3 billion 20 years ago, and would easily be twice that today. The financial ROI measured in GAAP terms has been negative. Not just low, but actually negative. If you are an elected rep from anywhere outside the NEC, how much more money does it make sense to throw down that hole? And since “everyone knows” that rail is “successful” only in the NEC, what elected official of any party or persuasion would want to waste money on an unnecessary and inevitably “unsuccessful” program like rail anyplace else?

    1. By the same measurement, wouldn’t “objective politicians” eliminate subsidies for any urban transit system? No, because that’s how $40,000-a-year employees get to their jobs. Does everything have to operate in the black? God knows, even with the tax burden skewed to the middle class, we’ve certainly got the money. We’re paying $140 million for each F-35 jet. I can’t believe this country would deny affordable public transportation to many millions of Americans who don’t live in urban areas because the trains aren’t “successful.” We can and should do our best to make sure all public transportation operates as efficiently as possible. I do enjoy reading and mulling your points of view, however. Hopefully, one of these days, that will occur in person.

      1. > God knows, even with the tax burden skewed to the middle class,
        > we’ve certainly got the money

        +1,000. And what is the ROI on an F-35?

    2. Could you expand on that thesis, Mr Selden? How much subsidy is put into the railway system for how much market share, how much subsidy for air traffic compared to their market share, and how much is put into the highway systems, for what market share? Because you can’t say NARP is wrong when they say the other modes of transportation don’t need any subsidies, there are billions of dollars going into the highway system, on top of what comes from gas taxes on cars and trucks. Many regional airports would never have been build if not for an ambitious (local) government which continue to foot the bill, air traffic control is paid for by the government… If those are investments in keeping people moving and the economy thriving, what makes passenger trains so much different they don’t deserve investment?

      1. Divide any of those numbers by revenue passenger miles, and then compare where the return on investment is. In the NEC, Amtrak’s share of intercity transport (not commuter, and not the meaningless air-rail modal split) is about 1 to 1 1/2 %. That is utterly irrelevant socially. How many more billions should go into propping up that federal make-work scheme, the main beneficiary of which is NJ Transit?
        When the latest terror shooting occurred at Ft. Lauderdale airport, it was noted that north of 70,000 passengers A DAY use the facility. Amtrak’s Ft. Lauderdale station handles 40,000 A YEAR. If you’re a rational elected official of any persuasion, which of those modes warrants public support? That has nothing to do with right-left ideology, and a lot to do with Amtrak and NARP abusing American taxpayers by putting essentially all of Amntrak’s capital into its smallest and commercially weakest operation–the NEC–instead of its largest and commercially strongest, and the only one where meaningful growth is even possible, which is the interregional long distance division.

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