Yes to the railroads

Posted: Jun 17, 2002 12:00 AM
The scare headlines popped up here and there intensifying last week. We were told that Amtrak would cease services unless ... Exactly.

And Congress will, we soon learned, and inevitably expected, come through with $500-odd million, sufficient to give Amtrak another six months of life. And, in Congress, something more than a stopgap measure is taking on steam. That would be Sen. Fritz Hollings' bill, a grand design of $59 billion to give us, coast to coast, a modern system. Sen. Hollings is a shrewd legislator. Drawing deep on the fragrance of Sept. 11, he has called his bill the "National Defense Rail Act."

Now the argument against federal financing of rail travel begins with the axiomatic rule: Let the rail passengers pay for their own conveniences. A pretty fair rule, but it's not a violation of it to remark the complexities.

The first of these is, of course, that the government is heavily involved in subsidizing traffic of every kind. The motorist can hardly drive around the block without driving over asphalt primarily financed by town and county, but also with contributions coming in tangentially from the federal government. When you debouch from I-95, you travel from road surface 100 percent paid for by the federal government, down the ramp to cutoffs toward the construction of which the feds made a lesser contribution, but a contribution nonetheless, onto roads paid for by the state, and by lower echelons of government, county and city. It takes hardy pioneering into highly exclusive warrens before the user runs into the driveway he actually paid for himself.

The same holds true for the airlines, an intimation of whose problems was given us by U.S. Airways last week when management said that service could not continue until $1 billion was raised.

There are other entwinements. The railroad, for instance, carries mail and postal packages. These, of course, are paid for by fees. Arriving at the right figure for such fees is an intricate assignment. What would it cost to ship the same package via the competition? Well, that would mean a truck. Trucks travel on federally paid-for roads.

And then, railroads have to pay for rights-of-way. Some own their own tracks, some do not. How do you allocate the capital expense of servicing these tracks?

And how to factor in the national need for adequate transportation facilities? When President Eisenhower launched the great highway program in 1956, he had partly in mind the need to increase the facilities for transcontinental defense -- a coast-to-coast Panama Canal, so to speak.

Now where the question gets itchy is the factor of relative convenience. There are a thousand towns in America with no rail service at all, where inhabitants who want to travel have to make their way by automobile or bus or airplane. These are people many of whom seethe at the thought of northeast-corridor Americans getting around between Boston and Washington on a fleet of trains that are losing money.

Fifty-two percent of travel between New York and Washington is done by railroad. Can the situation be rectified by simply charging more money? Experience shows that it can't. For some people, the demand for train travel is inelastic, but not for a lot of people. If you doubled the rail fare, you would not double the revenue.

This is a pretty universal experience, there being no railroad service in any industrial country that pays for itself. Do we have here an example of an organic exception to the rule that services should pay their own way? That may be in fact the case, but in any event, conservatives need to climb onto a higher level from which to seek a broader perspective. The urbanization of America and the volatility of American travel need to be accepted as a part of the American culture that shouldn't be constrained, let alone aborted, by dogmatic enforcements of otherwise useful rules of procedure.

The plan of Sen. Hollings is significantly to improve and to increase the availability of railroads, and he needs to justify doing this, at a cost of more than $5 billion per year, by persuading Congress and the public that however uneven the usufructs of rail travel to different parts of America, a national endowment is economically defensible, culturally desirable, and tangentially useful to the common defense.