Debate Forum: 07/28

Forum Center: Turning Amtrak into greenbacks

Is Amtrak primed for the private sector?

By Sarah Sidlow

May’s fatal Philadelphia Amtrak crash has left many believing the agency may finally be derailed for good.

On May 12, Northeast Regional Train 188 derailed and crashed in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. Two hundred of the train’s 238 passengers were injured; eight were killed. The train’s engineer, Brandon Bostain, has come under fire for losing control of the train—he became the center of the federal investigation, but suffered a head injury in the crash and has said he can’t remember what happened. Here’s what we know: the train was traveling at 106 miles per hour when it entered a turn and flew off the tracks. We also know that’s more than twice the recommended speed limit for a train of that size.

Now everyone is trying to tell Amtrak how to run a railroad. The Federal Railroad Administration told Amtrak to take measures to improve safety—namely increase the number of speed limit signs along the tracks and use train control tech to automatically detect when a train is moving too fast. Others called for mandatory seat belts for all train passengers, and safety cameras facing in on the engineers and passengers.

Some politicians—like Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania—used the tragedy to further their criticism of House Republicans for moving to cut Amtrak’s funding—because speed limit signs, cameras and federal probes cost money.

The $270 million cut to Amtrak was included in a $55 billion funding bill for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, approved by the House a day after the fatal crash.

Amtrak has historically received about $1 billion per year from the government for operations and construction projects since its inception in 1971. The agency was created to help the struggling railroad industry by placing its private passenger rail lines under federal control. The long game, according to Amtrak’s creators, was that a unified rail network under the hand of Uncle Sam would be successful enough that it wouldn’t need to rely on federal funds. More than four decades and $44 billion in taxpayer subsidies later ($70 billion when adjusted for inflation), however, Amtrak has yet to deliver a single year of profitability, so it may be time to go back to the drawing board.

Recently, some Republicans have pushed to eliminate the subsidies and give Amtrak’s most profitable routes back to the private sector, where, they claim, the free market will ensure that they either operate at a high level of both safety and efficiency, or they will fold and be purchased by someone else. Some proponents of this plan cite the success of the model of Genessee & Wyoming, Inc., which owns or leases freight railroads that operate in 41 states, four Canadian provinces, Australia and Europe. Genessee has focused on safety first—and the results show that safety is good for business. Outside the rails, car companies are proving that safety measures are selling points: think backup cameras, lane-drift alerts, seatbelt alarms, etc.

But opponents of privatizing Amtrak cite the agency’s roots themselves—the failure of private rail companies led to the very creation of Amtrak, they claim. Are we really ready to try that again and expect a different result? Those opposed to privatizing claim it’s just passing the buck—infrastructure spending is the responsibility of Congress, they say, and if Congress would just appropriate the funds, Amtrak, which has been steadily improving, would make it just fine. In fact, they say, Amtrak—with all its faults—may actually be performing better than other private rail companies out there. And plus, leaving it up to the free market means only the most profitable routes are likely to be picked up—leaving some of the others closed, and thousands of Americans without the transportation they rely on.

Reach DCP Editor Sarah Sidlow at


Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Is it time to privatize Amtrak?


Debate Left: Personal failure

Response By Ben Tomkins

The United States has one of the worst rail systems of any civilized nation on the planet, and it’s an embarrassment. The reason is twofold. First, people look at Amtrak and they see an entity that “costs the taxpayers dollars.” This is obviously true. Amtrak is a system of transportation that does not cover its own costs by selling tickets, and a lot of people in this country can’t stand the idea of public works. They view trains the same way they view public education: It’s an absolutely worthy public investment when they are taking advantage of it, but the second they aren’t, it’s a monument to government waste.

Then there’s the fact that many Americans have somehow developed the idea that, although we are mentally and physically adapted to living in groups, the height of personal achievement is to be able to cut yourself off from the rest of humanity. Amtrak is public transportation, and, by definition, that means we can’t always control exactly who is sitting across the aisle from us. We hate that because the only thing worse than not being able to cut yourself off from the rest of humanity is not being able to selectively cut yourself off from the rest of humanity. It’s why most people fairly enjoy being in airports (at least after security) but can’t wait to get off the plane.

Although the seats in your average airport are as close together as any airplane, albeit slightly larger, because you can get up and walk around if you want, everything is totally fine. The airplane itself is a privatized tube where every single square—sorry, inch—is paid for by individuals, so you can’t just wander around.

These two social facts have directly contributed to making Amtrak an icon of public transportation futility in America, and it’s a shame. Our image of transportation is a private bubble, not social excellence. It’s a self-defeating spiral that has put long-haul trains in the toilet as far as Americans are concerned because we refuse to take ownership of it as culture, despite the fact that trains are one of the best and most efficient means of mass transportation ever devised in the history of the world.

So then, we stare at it and ask ourselves the question “is it time to privatize Amtrak?” knowing full-well what we mean is “is it time for America to eliminate the train?” A private train system simply doesn’t work—and not because it’s not economically viable. It’s because public transportation is, by definition, a cultural investment that is far above and beyond counting square inches. When you privatize travel, it becomes very difficult to create a sense of non-monetary social value and ownership.

Yes, I used the word “social,” and I get that it’s part of the word “socialism.”

I don’t care. People who let Fox News decide that a word is scary are stupid. Virtually all airports are publicly owned, and a great airport is like a little vacation spot. Dayton has done ridiculously good things with its airport, and I enjoy it every time I go home. It’s the private planes we hate because they monetize our existence, not the public airports we make iconic social institutions. If you think about what would happen if we took cultural ownership of our airlines the way many countries have, then the idea of spending public money on them is a no-brainer.

As an example, Denver has one of the best public transportation systems of any city in the country. The light rail system is about a decade old, and next year, they will finish the line that goes out to the airport. It’s been beautifully laid out: You can visit all the major places you want to in the city, and it’s not horrifically expensive when an individual uses it because we collectively support it through tax dollars.

But it’s not just that. The city has, along with the actual laying of rails, completely redone Union Station downtown. It has literally gone from a hulking skeleton of a failed age of train travel to an amazing cultural center that is both a transportation and social hub. It’s beautiful inside, the restaurants and bars are excellent, there’s a great hotel and literally thousands of people go to Union Station every day just to drink and hang out.


Union Station is the single most impressive example I’ve ever seen of how the value of train transportation has everything to do with inspiration and cultural planning and nothing to do with speed. I was down there about three weeks ago and ran into a guy from Chicago who takes the train to San Francisco all the time, and, apparently, if you treat it like a hotel and wait for a good rate, you can get a sleeper for a few hundred bucks. According to him, stopping at Union Station for a few hours to chill out is a huge component of the enjoyment.

That’s why Amtrak is generally a failure. If we demand from our government, i.e. ourselves, that train travel be a point of excellence, everyone will enjoy it. If we feed it just enough cash to keep it from folding, we’ll just keep resenting it until we give up entirely.

 Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

Debate Right: A train going nowhere

Response By Dave Westbrock

The question of whether or not Amtrak should remain a government fief is merely part of the larger debate that is whether to privatize or socialize industry. According to its own statistics, Amtrak served an average of 86,000 passengers daily from 300 trains in 2013. In doing so, it has consumed one billion taxpayer dollars per year.

For 86,000 passengers annually, this amounts to an annual subsidy for those riders of $11,627,907 each. Talk about subsidies! And those subsidies are concentrated for the most part on the East Coast—Boston, New York and Washington—and to a lesser extent the West Coast and Chicago. What about us lesser citizens in all the other states?

The transcontinental railroad was built in six years at a total cost of $50 million, subsidized by government bonds and rights of way. Three private owners, the Western pacific, Union Pacific and Central Pacific, built and operated the railroad. Stock returns on investment amounted to $23 million (280 percent) in 1868. What return have investors in Amtrak received from a government owned entity in red ink for all of its 45 years and a total cost of $44 billion?

To quote Alfred North Whitehead, “Commerce is a great example of intercourse by way of persuasion. War, slavery, and government compulsion exemplify the reign of force.” By this, then, average Americans are forced to subsidize mostly easterners in their transportation and business by government compulsion, just like Americans are forced to subsidize the health care of others. Several private entities are now planning intercity railroad routes, including Florida East Coast Industries, which already operates successful freight business, with a route from Tampa to Orlando.

Amtrak advocates have argued that other technologies have gone many years without profit. For instance, a former member of the Amtrak board posits that the airline industry was not profitable from the early part of the century until 1991 (according to Warren Buffet). That argument as well as all the old examples presupposes that government handouts should simply last forever.

It is only those who like to spend other people’s money and whose livelihood does not depend on fiscal responsibility who seem to gravitate to a public answer to every question. The excuse that its budget is underfunded and that it needs more tax money to build and maintain infrastructure gives greater validity to the prospect that private capital can do it better, particularly when new efforts at private railways are growing. Several private operators in other countries such as South West Transport and Virgin Rail England and companies in Japan, Italy and France are profitable.

The safety issue is another that begs the question. Installing more stop signs on tracks in certain locations or seatbelts for passengers will mitigate risks, say the reformers. Really? Are these people living in the real world? Did the train engineer in the recent derailment not know the speed limit? Had he not operated on that route many times previously? And if he was not well trained, who will take the responsibility in the backdrop of a government that takes no responsibility for anything? If it was a mysterious loss of control for a medical reason, is there any assurance that it would not happen again despite speed limit signs or automatic breaking systems, which also are subject to failure?

The most ludicrous suggestion is seatbelts for train passengers—a concept only a liberal would pose—is this a real answer? That would make everyone secure in the knowledge that they would now be crushed in their securely fastened seat rather than be thrown to the opposite side of the train. But the installation of safety cameras is the best. In the future, viewers can be treated to the grisly display of mangled human bodies on video as part of their daily news entertainment.

As in many other areas of the commonweal, what role does government have? In health and welfare, government has progressively assumed a greater role in American life. Rather than freely offer medical care to those who are unable to afford standard care, either free care or a large discount could be tendered. This is no longer possible for most health insurances, Medicare specifically. No private health care exists outside government fiat unless both doctor and patient are willing to not participate, and the patient may be threatened with loss of social security benefits if the feds find out you are not using their highly controlled system. Obamacare will eventually be more threatening to the lives and freedoms of citizens with the introduction of the Independent Physician Advisory Board (IPAB) in the near future. Such is another government agency (known by some as the Death Panel) which will operate in near autonomy and permanence that will choose what and if medical procedures can be performed at all. Much the same totalitarian behavior exists in our educational system, with the education establishment continually trying to suppress any competition by political and social lobbying. And that is fostered by big government.

Dr. Westbrock has been in private medical practice for 35 years. He was the Republican candidate for the U.S House of Representatives in 1994 and 1996. He has written and lectured extensively on the subject of healthcare reform and healthcare policy. He can be reached at


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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at

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