Friday, May 15, 2015

Amtrak tragedies in Philadelphia and Washington

Days after a tragic crash of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia, the U.S. House voted to cut Amtrak funding by 20 percent. The cut was a knee-jerk reaction, not to the fatal derailment but to the notion that passenger rail service should pay for itself from passenger ticket sales.

But no transportation service pays for itself. The wondrous high-speed rail trains in Europe and Asia are not financed entirely by ticket sales. Those governments recognize that services that are a public good require some taxpayer subsidies to be feasible.

In this country, airlines and personal-vehicle travel are not paid for entirely by individual users. The cars we drive travel on taxpayer-funded roads and highways, and are subsidized by local and federal planning, engineering and bridge projects. Airlines are subsidized by government-paid construction of airports and the use of federal employees in air traffic control plus the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.

The dominance of air and personal-vehicle travel in this country did not just happen. It was a deliberate governmental decision to prefer airlines and cars over railways. Other governments have leaned toward advanced railways vs. cars. The interstate highway system that makes longer-distance travel via personal vehicles convenient, fairly comfortable and relatively safe (though not as safe as rail travel) was established by the Eisenhower administration as a military strategy because movement of heavy military equipment across a continent was not efficient on two-lane roads.

The idea that rail travel should be self-supporting ignores the economic realities of all forms of travel, and the cuts imposed in the House budget ignore the not just the convenience of rail passengers but also their safety.

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