Evan Soltas
Feb 20, 2013

Fixing Amtrak

This is a post which follows up on a bus trip I took to Boston. There's a lot of room for Amtrak to be better run, having looked at the data in depth.

The U.S. Postal Service, an independent federal agency, announced plans this month to end Saturday mail delivery to cut costs. Amtrak, the nation's passenger-train service and a supposedly private company, might like to cut services, too, but it can't. In practice, it's tightly controlled. Strangely enough, it has less managerial discretion than an actual branch of the government.

One way or another, fixing Amtrak will require congressional action. Republicans like to talk about "privatizing" it, even though it's already private. What they mean is that it gets too many orders and too much cash from Washington.

Democrats tend to represent the districts that benefit the most from Amtrak: metropolitan areas and, in particular, the Northeast Corridor. They last talked seriously about reforming it in 1997, when President Bill Clinton signed a reform plan into law. It failed to make the railroad self-sufficient. Today, Democrats are more likely to propose expansions of rail service and subsidies, as in the 2009 stimulus law and the American Jobs Act.

Republicans have in mind a smaller role for rail transit, and Democrats a larger one, but they ought to be able to agree on ways to make Amtrak work better, whatever its size.