Last week’s Amtrak crash in South Carolina shouldn’t have happened. Same with the one in Virginia the week before, and the derailment that happened last December in Washington state. If the politicians and advisors who designed the system had succeeded, no passenger rail train would have crashed in decades. That’s because Amtrak wouldn’t exist.
Amtrak was designed to fail quietly. Richard Nixon and his advisors had such little faith in American passenger rail that one of their biggest concerns was just making sure they didn’t catch the blame when it choo-choo-ed into the sunset. Amtrak is obviously still around. In fact it’s more popular than ever, and paid about 94 percent of its own operating costs in 2016. But Amtrak’s origin story could be why a certain sort of politician views Amtrak as a giant leech on the public: President Trump’s latest budget proposal halves the federal government’s Amtrak commitment.
Indeed, from its inception, Amtrak was not guaranteed any long term funding. Unlike the highway system—which is also heavily subsidized—it had to proactively approach Congress to clear its debts. To understand how this funky setup happened, we need to take a trip back to 1970.
By then, almost every American passenger rail line (by law and charter, freight rail companies had to run passenger service) had been in the red for decades. Cheap air travel and the Interstate Highway System had siphoned off much of their ridership. Many railroads were veering toward bankruptcy. This put Congress and President Nixon in a tricky position. On one hand, most economic experts predicted that passenger rail travel wasn’t long for this world. On the other, if they did nothing, the public would likely blame them for allowing a Beloved American Institution to fail.
Congress came to the rescue with the Rail Passenger Service Act, signed into law by Nixon in 1970. It let railroad companies sell their intercity passenger lines to the government. The consolidated national railway (briefly known as Railpax before someone thought up Amtrak) was a brand new thing. Amtrak would be federally subsidized. However, the law provided no long term funding. “In the 1970s, there really wasn’t a clear financial sense of what the life of Amtrak would be,” says Joseph Kane, an associate fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies transportation. As reported in Governing magazine in 1996, most in Congress believed Amtrak would click its final clack within a few years. (Those founding documents also denied Amtrak right of way, which meant, until just a few years ago, passenger rail had to pull aside whenever freight needed the tracks.)
If Congress provided the nails, Nixon built the coffin. His design approach to Amtrak was mercenary. Nixon had his ombudsman rate the different national route proposals on how likely they were to fail. Then the ombudsman ranked how likely it would be for Nixon to catch the blame for each failure scenario. Nixon didn’t seem to have any personal qualms against passenger rail (at least, Amtrak wasn’t on the enemies list), he just didn’t see it going anywhere. He apparently wanted to expedite Amtrak’s demise so it wouldn’t be a long term burden on taxpayers.
Amtrak survived, though, through a mix of savvy administration and public popularity. But, the congressional shortchanging and Nixonian sabotage left scars. “Amtrak has historically jumped from one funding request to another, with very little sense of where its financial future was coming from,” says Kane. Throughout the Reagan ‘80s, and well into the ‘90s, politicians have harped on Amtrak’s supposedly outsize expense, relative to its ridership. It was only in 2015, when President Obama signed the FAST Act giving Amtrak funding for five years, that the organization finally had a guaranteed source of cash.
One outcome of all that stopgappery is Amtrak’s massive backlog of maintenance and repair. In the Northeast Corridor alone (Amtrak’s busiest, and most profitable region), Amtrak estimates those costs at $38 billion.
It has also made Amtrak into a conspicuous target. “Amtrak has been a political piñata for one reason or another for the better part of 40 years,” says Kane. Not surprisingly, Amtrak has attracted the Sauronic gaze of Trump’s budget writers. The president’s proposal halves federal subsidies to Amtrak’s long distance lines, from $1.5 billion to $738 million.
Why target long distance travel? “Most people refer to the national Amtrak system as one thing, but really it is three different pieces,” says Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation. The first piece is the Northeast Corridor, transporting 12 million people a year between Washington, DC and Boston. Thirty-eight billion dollar backlog aside, this is where Amtrak makes most of its revenue. The second piece is the various short haul routes connecting relatively proximal cities—in 2016, nearly 15 million people thought Amtrak was a cheaper, faster, and easier alternative to flying or driving. Many short-haul routes are state subsidized, taking some burden off the federal government—states contribute 85 percent of the operational costs of routes running within their borders.
The third piece is long haul routes, those big stretches connecting places like Los Angeles to Chicago, that push Amtrak’s operating budget into the red. Fewer than 5 million travelers use these every year. It’s not hard to understand why. They pass through long stretches of nothing. A cross country ticket can cost more than an airplane flight, and take days as opposed to hours (TSA checkpoint lines notwithstanding). But, as CityLab pointed out last year, these long distance routes also serve small cities, and rural communities that have been abandoned by airlines and bus routes.
Though long distance routes have their riders, and provide a necessary service to folk who live between metropoli, those miles and miles of track are a bear to maintain. CityLab also estimated that these long distance routes cost Amtrak $111 per passenger. Compare that to the short haul lines, which only run a deficit of $11 per head, and the Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak makes $20 per rider.
Trump’s proposal asks states to pay for long distance Amtrak travel (currently states only kick in for the short haul lines). For instance, the Southwest Chief runs from Los Angeles to Chicago. Under Trump’s plan, states along that route would share some part of the bill. “It’s going to require some negotiation between individual states and Amtrak to figure out what that contribution will be,” says Puentes. Say Colorado decides it’s being overcharged—after all, the three places where the Southwest Chief stops in that state have a combined population of less than 22,000. What does Amtrak do then? Shut down Southwest Chief’s service through those towns? Lay new track, circumventing the Mile High State? Rural politicians are keenly aware of Amtrak’s role in their communities, and might oppose Trump’s proposed cut.
Amtrak isn’t unique in its never ending thirst for federal subsidies. “It is definitely singled out more than highways and aviation, both of which are heavily subsidized and don’t come close to paying for themselves,” says Puentes. But whereas politicians will quietly redirect lumps of the general fund, or authorize debt to shore up perennially busted aspects of other infrastructure, Amtrak’s requests for money often seem to inspire politicians to imbue the railway with an existential crisis.
Part of that is undoubtedly due to Amtrak’s history—it was designed not just to fail, but to always be begging for money. Trump’s proposal probably wouldn’t help Amtrak tackle its huge backlog of maintenance. It would almost certainly put further delays on the positive train control systems Congress told Amtrak it needed to install on every train by this year. But hey, between its troubled beginnings and modern problems, give Amtrak credit for staying on the rails—most of the time.