Government Bytes

Commentary 

A Review of End of the Line: The Failure of Amtrak Reform and the Future of America's Passenger Trains By Joseph Vranich

by paul gessing / /

If your idea of a good time is sitting down on a winter night to read a page-turning, scary story, End of the Line, a new book by transportation expert Joseph Vranich is just the ticket for you. Unfortunately, unlike Bigfoot and other fictional monsters, in this case the horror is all too real and the monster is Amtrak, a federally managed corporation that operates America's rail network.

Vranich's book is not a weighty tome, but with more than 75 pages of notes and appendices, it packs a mighty punch. His tale of a socialistic passenger rail monopoly run amuck will send chills up and down your spine. As if the $27 billion in direct taxpayer subsidies Congress has provided Amtrak is not frightening enough, Vranich explains how Amtrak received a $2.18 billion income tax "refund" in 1997 even though it has never paid income taxes. He exposes the fact that Amtrak's real subsidies far exceed the advertised $27 billion, because:

  • The railroad has defaulted on a $1.1 billion loan that was ultimately paid for by Uncle Sam;
  • Federal agencies and state and local governments often foot the bills for train stations and infrastructure that are Amtrak's rightful responsibilities; and,
  • Amtrak even suckered the Canadian government into providing $1 billion in low-interest loans for its purchase of Canadian-made rail equipment.

Worse than the fiscal horror story in Vranich's book is the fact that Amtrak has been asleep at the switch in managing the tunnels it owns under New York City. These busy venues are prime terrorist targets and even a train accident could be a disaster -- yet, Amtrak continues to under-invest in upkeep on these important assets in order to shift resources to little-traveled, money-losing (though politically essential) long haul routes in the west. As Vranich points out, the DOT's own Inspector General, Kenneth Mead, does not trust Amtrak to make the needed tunnel work a priority. Yet, narrow, winding spiral staircases, crumbling walkways, inadequate ventilation, and lack of standpipes to bring water for fighting fires all make the condition of New York's train tunnels a clear and present danger not only to Amtrak passengers traveling through New York, but also to the 500,000 users of commuter rail who travel through Penn Station each weekday.

In shedding light on Amtrak's true nature, Vranich reveals a gruesome picture indeed, but as a "train person" at heart, (Vranich previously worked for Amtrak), he is optimistic that -- if unburdened from Amtrak's bureaucracy and incompetence -- passenger rail can be viable in America. In fact, the last half of End of the Line outlines how other nations including Britain and Japan (to name just a couple) have reformed their passenger rail networks, thus saving taxpayers billions of dollars and providing superior service to rail passengers.

Whether your interest is trains, taxes, or the federal government's inherent tendency to expand, you will find this book enlightening and fascinating. Vranich has undoubtedly added intellectual fuel to the fire of those calling for major reform or outright privatization of one of America's most dangerously incompetent monopolies.

Ed. Note: End of the Line American Enterprise Institute, 2004, 282 Pages (may be ordered from AEI Press at (800)343-4499 or at www.aei.org.