Do We Ask Too Much of Amtrak?

Both before and after the two world wars, passenger trains in one form or another provided most of the public transportation in the U.S. Long-distance trains linked cities and connected entire regions. Major cities had transit systems. Trains ran underground in New York and Los Angeles, while Chicago opted for an elevated system. Smaller cities had street cars running on track laid in exclusive rights of way while some ran down the middle of existing city streets. 

I remember visiting St. Louis and my grandfather taking me to a baseball game between the Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs in 1946. We boarded a street car in the suburb of Webster Groves not much more than a couple of hundred feet from their front door and rode it right to the ballpark. 

I don’t remember when the last street car ran in my home town of Hartford, Connecticut, but it was probably around the same time. My father took me for a ceremonial “last ride”, although truthfully I can’t ever remember riding a Hartford streetcar before that one time.

Today, Amtrak is this country’s passenger railroad. It was created by the federal government in the early 1970s, but the lack of any reliable or significant financial support from the government since then means it’s extremely difficult for Amtrak to maintain its national system or to order new equipment or to plan for the future.

The great irony, of course, is that the federal government was actually a major factor in the demise of passenger rail in this country by creating and then supporting the railroads’ competition. The feds built and still maintain the Interstate Highway System and they subsidize the aviation industry by providing much of the infrastructure for commercial aviation, including the air traffic controllers and airports.) 

In contrast, over the past couple of decades, Washington has only grudgingly covered Amtrak’s relatively small shortfalls, all the while demanding that the railroad do what no other national passenger rail system anywhere in the world has been asked to do: break even.  

Elsewhere in the world, it’s quite a different story. For instance, a high-speed rail line is nearing completion … in Uzbekistan!

PLEASE NOTE: Among many other things, I still can’t figure out how to add space between paragraphs. To make the text easier to read, you can do it yourself. Just perform one quick left click on the post’s headline. In the meantime, I have scheduled a tutorial with someone who will hopefully be able to teach this old dog how to deal with this new (to me) program.