Amtrak Chugs Along Despite Decades of Political Battles

Oct. 12 (Bloomberg) -- The past few months have seen some good news for Amtrak. In July, the nation’s passenger-rail service announced a record monthly ridership of 2.78 million trips. In fiscal year 2012, more than 31.2 million passengers rode the rails, also a record.

Unfortunately, any excitement over these developments has to be tempered by economic reality. The National Railroad Passenger Corp., the for-profit company that runs Amtrak, is always in the red. Only operating subsidies from Congress keep Amtrak running -- to the tune of about $466 million this year. Subsidies are down by more than $250 million since 2004, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has targeted the Amtrak funds for one of his budget cuts.

Since Amtrak’s founding in 1970, the government’s role in creating and sustaining the passenger railroad has made for spirited political debate -- yet history suggests Romney would have a tough time killing off the service if he gets elected.

In 1969, passenger rail was in steep decline, a dropoff that started during the 1920s and then accelerated after World War II. By the time Richard Nixon became president, the nation’s rail companies no longer wanted to carry passengers, since it was a money-losing proposition. But some members of Congress, led by Senator Vance Hartke, a Democrat from Indiana, thought it was essential to preserve intercity passenger-rail service, even if that meant a large role for the federal government was the only solution.

Stepping In

During the summer of 1969, Secretary of Transportation John Volpe heard something similar from his staff: Without federal intervention, passenger-train service would die in the U.S. Volpe, a former Republican governor of Massachusetts, knew the importance of that service to the country. He convinced the Nixon White House to let his department draft legislation to create a national passenger railway.

As Volpe’s biographer Kathleen Kilgore describes it, Volpe’s idea was something of a tough sell with members of the Nixon administration, especially aide John Ehrlichman. By February 1970, Nixon still hadn’t approved Volpe’s plan. The secretary met with Ehrlichman, “banging his fist on the desk and threatening to pack his bags and go back to Boston” unless Volpe could personally talk to Nixon about the bill. Ehrlichman agreed, and Nixon gave his support.

By this time, Congress was already considering a bill drafted by Hartke to create what would become the National Railroad Passenger Corp., a quasipublic entity. Volpe’s staff worked with Hartke to merge their two bills. The hybrid legislation called for eliminating some existing passenger-rail lines and spending $340 million. Nixon signed the bill into law in October, and the new corporation’s trains, operating under the now-familiar name Amtrak, began running in 1971.

Volpe had high hopes for the new service, which his staff had once dubbed Railpax. By eliminating less-popular routes and bringing in faster trains, he hoped Amtrak could operate without subsidies within five years.

But an unnamed “high official of the Transportation Department,” quoted by the New York Times in January 1971, had a different vision. He said the whole purpose of the law that created the corporation was to “run the wheels off the existing equipment” and then “put an end to passenger trains in this country.” The paper had earlier reported that the Nixon administration never cared for Volpe’s Railpax proposal, but it agreed to the compromise bill that called for smaller subsidies than what Hartke had originally wanted.

Bipartisan Support

Another fight over subsidies arose soon after Amtrak started rolling. In October 1971, Amtrak officials rejected a bipartisan congressional call to give the railway more money than it requested. “There is no cheap way to build decent rail transportation,” said Republican Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut. Hartke told Amtrak that to make passenger-rail service thrive, “It’s got to be massive, it’s got to be exciting, it’s got to be inspirational.”

Since then, the debate over Amtrak has shown that not everyone in government shared Hartke’s concern for building excitement and inspiration. Soon after taking office in 1981, President Ronald Reagan called for cutting the subsidy by 35 percent, and he tacked on another 12 percent cut later in the year. Congress, though, ignored him, giving Amtrak more than the president requested. Almost 25 years later, President George W. Bush called for cutting all of Amtrak’s operating subsidies. Like Reagan, he faced a congressional rebuff.

Today, the bipartisan support the subsidies enjoyed during Amtrak’s early days has mostly waned. But each year, tens of millions of riders follow the cry of “All aboard,” grateful for an alternative to cars, buses and airplanes for long-distance travel.

(Michael Burgan is a freelance writer and editor of The Biographer’s Craft, the newsletter for Biographers International Organization. His love of trains began with his first Amtrak ride from Hartford to New York in 1972. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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