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Ride idea of privatizing Amtrak out on a rail

Talk is swirling about Amtrak dropping many of its long-distance passenger rail routes, and about the government privatizing the service altogether.

Hold the train.

Such discussions should particularly concern Glenwood Springs, where some 30,000 people board or get off the train each year, many of them to visit our tourist town.



But the future of Amtrak should concern all Americans. Passenger rail service has a place in our country as one means of transportation, as we were well-reminded when air traffic was shut down after Sept. 11 and Amtrak cars were filled to the brim.

Detractors of passenger rail will point to the $1.1 billion Amtrak lost last year and declare the agency a failure, undeserving of federal subsidy. They will argue that vehicle and jet travel have shown themselves to be vastly preferable to the public, and more cost-effective, besides.



But such talk ignores the massive subsidies these transportation forms receive.

In its first 26 years of operation, Amtrak used $22 billion in federal subsidies and for capital improvements.

By contrast, the Federal Highway Administration received $32 billion in a single year.

Consider last year’s post-Sept. 11 bailout of the airline industry, or the tax dollars that build and expand airports. And at the state level, road-building and maintenance cost billions more.

Our country has done its best to let the automobile take over every aspect of our lives. We pave more and more lanes every year, and the cars and trucks fill them up.

By contrast, passenger rail moves people and goods many times over on the same steel rails. It is a safe, relaxing mode of travel.

Like every other form of transportation, however, it requires a government subsidy in order to offer affordable service to the masses.

Congress has strangled Amtrak, insisting that it must make a profit, while pouring billions into highway and airline subsidies.

Now, Amtrak has come to a showdown.

The Amtrak Reform Council has issued a report calling for the agency to be split into three parts for more efficient operation. It would ultimately allow private operators to bid on particular routes.

Meanwhile, Amtrak officials have said they will cut 18 popular long distance routes, including our own California Zephyr, if its 2003 funding is not increased to $1.2 billion.

We hope Amtrak is only bluffing about its route cuts as a strategy to win more federal funding. If the agency needs a worked-up constituency to fight for its survival, it will certainly find supporters in this corner.

Every business that enjoys the tourist dollar should chime in as well.

Congress should give Amtrak the money it needs to operate. Funding for Amtrak is not pork, it is a worthwhile public expenditure that any developed country should plan for.

At the same time, we hope the talk of privatizing rail service fizzles.

Private firms won’t want the less profitable routes. But they’ll be happy to take over the northeast corridors that are Amtrak’s current cash cow.

Privatizing passenger rail service will have the same result as deregulating telephone service. Phone companies are happy to serve lucrative metro areas, but they don’t want to provide rural service.

There is no denying that Amtrak must focus on improving its efficiency. Splitting the agency in three pieces may make sense. It’s too early to weigh in on the Reform Council’s proposals.

But we hope that the debate takes the future of passenger rail service seriously. If the United States lets its passenger rail service dry up and die, it will lose its most civilized and energy-efficient form of transportation.


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