Before we consign Mitt Romney and the whole of his failed program to the trash, it is worth recycling one of his proposals that has considerable merit: the privatization of Amtrak. Passenger railroads have rarely if ever made money. Even at the peak of the Railroad Age, the ferrying of humans rather than freight was a money-losing enterprise designed to add allure to the more mundane but profitable business of hauling goods. Amid the failure of private enterprise, however, a clear need was exposed for an environmentally friendly passenger service that linked city center to city center.
Human rail transport was considered so desirable, and met such a public need, that when the free market failed it was considered unconscionable to simply abandon the idea as a noble experiment that failed. Out of the ashes of the free enterprise rail system was salvaged a truncated nationalized railroad network, Amtrak – and what an awkward, unloved, poorly run travesty of a public service it has become. The heir to the romantic experiment of the iron horse and railroad barons that opened up the continent and funneled pioneers and investment into sparsely populated spaces has become a faded, complacent, dowdy rail system that would not pass muster in the Third World.
Rescuing the best of the passenger rail service so it will earn at least part of its keep for the rest of the century offers a conundrum that cuts to the heart of the argument about the border between the public good and the free market. Like the provision of universal healthcare, social security and welfare, there is no easy way to match the evident public benefit of a rapid transit rail system to the failure of the free market to provide one. The quandary is made more confused because, while railroads no longer compete with one another, they do compete with airlines, cars and buses.
The easy laissez-faire solution would be to withdraw the federal subsidy – currently at $1.4 billion per annum– forthwith, let Amtrak go bust and sell the assets in land and plant to the highest bidder, who most likely would make no attempt to restore passenger rail services. But that is to throw away a rare public resource that, given the right management and inspiration, could offer a green and convenient alternative to plane and bus travel, delivering vast numbers of passengers in speed, comfort and safety.
Amtrak has had 41 years to establish a high-level service that travelers would be eager to buy. But successive Amtrak boards and managements have miserably failed to live up to their obligations to the American people, who are not only their customers but, as taxpayers, their owners. They have also betrayed those who argue that a publicly owned and administered utility need not be run on Soviet lines, deaf to complaints and contemptuous of its users. In countries like Japan and France, where governments spend freely on railroads, the public is well served. But the reluctance of Congress to spend the vast amounts of money needed on the American system leaves little room for optimism that a system wholly funded by the state will ever come about. Barack Obama’s expansion into high speed rail is a gamble that may well end in an expensive, unfinished line to nowhere.