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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Amtrak on the Line

Air Date: Week of

The pressure to cut federal subsidies may put some Amtrak passenger train service on the chopping block. The rail line seems like an easy hit, until the subsidies and hidden costs of auto travel are factored in. How does the equation look then? From Boston, Dan Grossman adds it all up.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As of April 2nd, a good deal of the US national passenger rail service will be history. Amtrak has announced route and segment cuts around the nation, including many trains serving Chicago, Florida, and the congested Northeast Corridor. Several states are negotiating to save some of these trains, but most aren't likely to be revived. The service cutbacks are aimed at blunting the axe of Congressional budget cutters. Amtrak has received more than $13 billion in Federal subsidies since 1977, and some say it's time to call a halt to the Red Ink Express. But finding the true costs and benefits of rail travel takes more than a glance at the bottom line. There are many who argue that when you add up all the hidden subsidies and environmental costs of cars, trains, and planes, rail comes out ahead. Reporter Dan Grossman has more.

(Railway depot announcer: "Amtrak train... boarding now on Track No. 4...")

GROSSMAN: It's an early morning in Boston's busy South Station railway terminal.

(Railway depot announcer: "Final boarding call for Amtrak train 145 ... boarding on Track 4...")

GROSSMAN: Clusters of groggy travelers are rushing to catch the Connecticut Yankee. They are among some 5,000 passengers a day who shuttle along the corridor between Boston and New York by train, alleviating congestion on the crowded highways and airways of the Northeast. But in April, Amtrak will suspend this train and at least one other daily departure from South Station. The cutbacks are part of a wider plan to reduce the railroad's annual deficit, which came to over $1 billion last year. Many Amtrak critics welcome the shrunken timetable as an overdue pruning to the rail carrier's thicket of routes. But some say it's not enough.

HEFLEY: The point is, people don't want to ride the train.

GROSSMAN: Republican Representative Joel Hefley of Colorado says the Federal Government is propping up a relic. Amtrak's subsidy this year comes to $970 million. Last month Hefley introduced legislation to eliminate Federal funding for passenger rail service.

HEFLEY: What we're talking about here is taxpayer subsidy of $25 per passenger. Every time anyone gets on an Amtrak train, whatever they pay, the government is subsidizing it $25 over and above that. And somehow or other, it seems to me in a time when we're trying to balance the budget by 2002, this is one of those things that we can't afford any longer.

(An arriving train clanging; wheels on the rail)

GROSSMAN: It's true. Amtrak has been kept afloat with Federal support ever since it was created by Congress in 1970. Last year passenger fares and other fees covered less than 60% of the railway's two-and-a-half billion dollar budget. Most of the rest came from the Federal Treasury. But environmentalists like Doug Foy say these figures don't tell the whole story.

(Bells clanging)

FOY: We subsidize all forms of transportation in this country, and although we subsidize Amtrak to a tune of maybe a billion dollars a year, we subsidize highways to the tune of tens of billions of dollars a year. Every form of transportation in the country - roads, rails, airlines - are subsidized with public dollars. The issue is, if we're going to subsidize any form of transportation, where do we get the most bounce for the ounce?

GROSSMAN: If driving habits mean anything, Americans think they get the most bounce in their cars. Of the 4 trillion miles Americans log each year, about 90% are in passenger cars. Americans spend $400 billion annually to purchase, operate, and service cars. But Foy, who heads the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, says the full cost of the automobile is often ignored.

FOY: The car is just buried under hidden subsidies. Police, fire, snow plowing, salting of roads in winter areas. Air pollution costs, which are extraordinary. Respiratory diseases are going sky high in our cities and a large portion of that is attributable to automobile emissions. Those are some of the costs.

GROSSMAN: Foy calls these costs hidden because they are not included in sticker prices, insurance premiums, or the cost of gasoline. But they still come out of our pockets when tax dollars are used to defend overseas oil reserves, or when traffic noise depresses property values. One study puts these additional costs at $300 billion a year. Another study by the Natural Resources Defense Council compares auto travel with bus and rail. It concludes that trains are not as costly as subsidies make them appear, and that all 3 modes of transport cost roughly the same: between 35 and 53 cents per passenger mile. But others crunch the numbers differently. Professor Jose Gomes Ibañez is a transportation expert at Harvard University.

IBAÑEZ: The studies that the environmental groups are generating are using high estimates of the pollution damage, the energy security damage, and the accident external costs of the automobile. And if you look at studies that are done by more objective groups, they tend to show lower numbers for the automobiles.

GROSSMAN: What even critics like Gomes Ibañez agree on is that a full train consumes less energy and generates less pollution than a car or plane. But the environmental potential cannot be reached unless the trains are nearly full. And today, relatively few Americans ride the rails. That forces Amtrak to choose between running partly-loaded cars and less frequent service. With its recently announced cutbacks, the railroad has clearly chosen to run fewer trains. But that carries the risk of further discouraging potential passengers and spurring a downward spiral in service. Service which Doug Foy says is already inadequate.

FOY: At the moment, we run Third World quality trains in this country. And it's not surprising that people find train service unappealing and that politicians find investments in train service an unwise investment.

GROSSMAN: Foy says now is not the time to make service worse. Frank Wilner, author of the recent book The Amtrak Story, agrees.

WILNER: The highways are terribly congested today. Anyone who has traveled by airplane knows how almost impossible the airports are. There are just too many of us in certain regards for the transportation that we have available, at least by auto and air. But incredibly, we have room on the rails.

(A spike being hammered in)

GROSSMAN: As Congress debates its future, Amtrak is going ahead with plans to carry some passengers faster and more comfortably.

(Man's voice: "Two-twelve, twenty-one, fifty-five." Walkie-talkie voice replies: "Two-twelve, twenty-one, fifty five...")

GROSSMAN: On this railroad site in Boston, a crew is marking the site of an electrical substation for a high-speed rail connection to New York. After its completion in 1999, the new service should whisk passengers the 200 miles between the 2 cities in just 3 hours, and will carry nearly 2 million passengers annually who would otherwise drive or fly.

(Train horn, wheels on rails)

GROSSMAN: Environmentalists like Doug Foy say this is the future of American rail. And the Federal Railroad Administration is studying high-speed rail networks in roughly a dozen urban corridors, including the California Coast, the Pacific Northwest, and Florida. A recent Congressional study concluded high-speed rail routes won't be built without Federal backing. But Amtrak critics like Congressman Joel Hefley say that would be a waste of taxpayers' money.

HEFLEY: The reality is, they don't want to ride the train. They want to have the independence of driving their car. Now what are we going to do in America?

GROSSMAN: Congress may answer that question soon. It's likely to take up Amtrak's future in late March. For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman.



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