Wrong Track

Every time the Republican Party wins control of the White House or one branch of Congress, the battle to save Amtrak begins anew. Ronald Reagan regularly tried to zero out the Amtrak budget. Under pressure from Democrats in Congress, the elder George Bush reluctantly authorized funds for improving rail service that had been approved during the Carter administration. George W. Bush proposed to spin off Amtrak's profitable Northeast Corridor service and offer it up to competitive bidding. In 2009, complying with legislative requirements, the U.S. Department of Transportation solicited private bids for the Northeast Corridor, but nobody showed up.

Now the Republicans are back at their efforts to privatize Amtrak. In June, the two GOP leaders on transportation policy in the House of Representatives--John L. Mica of Florida and Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania--proposed to spin off the Northeast Corridor rail service and invite private bids to run it.

This proposal comes at a time when the United States finally has an administration committed to providing Americans with the kind of modern high- or higher-speed rail service that our friends in Europe and Asia enjoy as a matter of course. President Barack Obama has proposed as a national goal connecting 80 percent of America's cities with high-speed rail by 2025, and in 2009 Congress agreed to the president's request for $8 billion as a down payment to build that system.

This initiative should be judged in the light of the nation's transportation history since World War II. The federal government has invested nearly $2 trillion in highways and air transport but only a tiny fraction of that in the nation's passenger rail and transit systems. Europe is moving to connect all of its major cities with trains running at speeds of nearly 200 miles an hour, and China is investing billions in a national high-speed rail system with top speeds of 225 mph. But most trains in the United States can't run at more than 80 mph, and only Amtrak's Acela train in the Northeast Corridor can hit speeds of 150 mph and then only for short stretches of track.

Even so, the Acela makes an operating profit, and Amtrak has unveiled plans for higher-speed service in the Northeast that will cut the travel time between New York and Washington to 96 minutes and from New York to Boston to under three and a half hours. In the meantime, California voters have approved plans for a 220 mph system, and a substantial portion of the new federal high-speed rail money has been allocated for the California project.

But with Republicans back in control of the House, these efforts may well be derailed. The proposal by Mica and Shuster bears a strong resemblance to the policies that Great Britain followed when it privatized British National Rail during the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Like the Mica-Shuster bill, the British legislation divided the ownership and maintenance of the tracks from responsibility for operating train service. The results were disastrous. Safety deteriorated. Train delays and collisions became all too common. The company that was organized to take over the infrastructure went bankrupt, and the British government had to take it back and once again assume responsibility for track ownership and maintenance. Far from saving money, the British government is now spending millions of pounds more on its rail system than it was before privatization. Mica and Shuster claim that private investors will develop high-speed rail service for the Northeast more efficiently than Amtrak will, but there is nothing in either foreign or American experience to suggest that they will develop it at all.

In proposing to spin off the Northeast Corridor, Mica and Shuster are also threatening to undermine passenger rail service in the rest of the country. The Northeast Corridor is by far the busiest and most profitable part of the system and helps support long-distance services in other areas that can never make money. Those train lines are especially important to communities that have no service by commercial airlines and shrinking service by intercity buses. Leave those lines to private operators who can't possibly make a profit on them, and the system will inevitably wither and die.

The Mica-Shuster plan isn't likely to get any further than its predecessors. What it will do, however, is slow the momentum that was building behind Obama's high-speed-rail initiative and obscure the real gains that Amtrak has been making. Ridership continues to increase and this year is likely to top 30 million for the first time. When Obama and Joe Biden took over -- the vice president is a longtime advocate for Amtrak and high-speed rail -- there weren't many shovel-ready rail projects in the pipeline. After all, during the Bush years, there was little encouragement at the state and local level to develop detailed planning and engineering for high-speed rail. But dozens of states were moving rapidly to develop plans when John Boehner and Co. took over the House, and now that development may stop.

The GOP is sometimes called the Party of Lincoln, though few Republicans today seem to remember that it was Abraham Lincoln who initiated the push for a transcontinental railway. A national high-speed rail system is the modern equivalent, and a party in Lincoln's image would be pushing for it. Instead, newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida have rejected federal funds already awarded to their states for major intercity rail passenger projects. While other states have snapped up that money, the Republican budget introduced by Representative Paul Ryan would virtually eliminate any additional funds for high-speed rail.

Amid the general Republican opposition to investment in passenger rail, one recent exception does stand out. George W. Bush asked Congress to spend nearly half a billion dollars on improving a government-owned, national railway system--and he got the money. That railroad was in Iraq.