- - Sunday, May 17, 2015


Before the wreckage of the fatal crash in Philadelphia was cleared, the politicians in Washington began to fight over the damaged carcass of Amtrak, the troubled national passenger railroad.

The railroads made America possible, stitching the continent together with seams of steel, and the wail of a distant outbound freight in the wee hours of the morning was the music of a romance with the land.

But the romance faded with the airplane and the coming of the interstates, and soon nobody wanted to ride a train. The plane was faster and the interstate gave anyone with an automobile the independence that restless men are forever seeking.

Which brings us back to Philadelphia, and what to do about Amtrak. The passenger railroad has no romance about it, and it loses up to $2 billion a year, most, but not all, paid by the taxpayers. Amtrak serves mostly passengers in the 10 largest cities, which limits its ability to make friends in urban America and in Congress. Many congressmen would cheerfully eliminate Amtrak altogether.

Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona, a Republican, introduced legislation last month, before the Philadelphia crash, to strip Amtrak of its federal subsidy. This would do the fatal deed. Mr. Salmon says this would spur competition among railroads to provide passenger service where it can pay its way.

“America offers a robust market with bountiful providers of air and land travel at competitive prices. It’s time for Congress to get out of the railroad business and allow private companies to operate rail service where the market will freely support such a service instead of wasting money where it can’t compete.”

Others in Congress say Amtrak deserves more subsidy, taking note that if the track on the curve in Philadelphia had been equipped with the latest technology to automatically apply the train’s brakes there would have been no crash. The train would have been slowed from its 102-mile-an-hour speed at the beginning of the curve to the 50 miles an hour the rules require. (Insisting that the engineer slow down would work, too.)

The arguments over the Amtrak subsidy are old ones, essentially between those who like trains and those who don’t. The airlines and the highways get government subsidies, too, some direct and some indirect. Cities spend billions on airports with terminals with cathedral architecture, all with federal subsidies, and further billions are spent to regulate and control the traffic in the skies.

Exploiting the fear and grief of the train wreck in Philadelphia won’t help anyone. Trains are still the safest form of transportation. Amtrak carried nearly 12 million passengers in the busy northeast corridor last year — between Washington and Boston, through Philadelphia and New York — and the Philadelphia crash was the first major accident in the corridor in 27 years.

Friends and critics of Amtrak could usefully wait until the facts are collected and reasonable conclusions reached before they ride off in separate directions. Amtrak’s managers should be asked pertinent questions, like how can the railroad, with trains full of prospective customers, manage to lose $72 million a year on selling and serving food. That’s enough to give anyone indigestion.

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