Amtrak Plan Seeks Billions in “Investment”

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by Gene Callahan and Stu Morgenstern

WASHINGTON – The United States suffers a ”rail investment gap” that can be closed with mere billions in federal money to modernize equipment, improve service and finally replace those drab conductor’s uniforms with something reflecting a little more joie de vivre, Amtrak says in a new business plan entitled “Amtrak’s New Business Plan.” 

The federal government now dedicates less than 1 percent of all transportation spending to intercity passenger rail, Amtrak officials say. Under their preferred scenario, that amount would grow faster than Al Sharpton at a Bob’s Big Boy all-you-can-eat rib special.

”We tend to live from handout to handout, from congressional budget year to congressional budget year, and, as they say, that’s no way to run a railroad,” Amtrak president George Warshington told reporters yesterday. “Hmm, come to think of it, maybe receiving any handouts isn’t much of a way to run a railroad.”

Warshington said the American ”rail investment gap” compared with other developed countries represents a missed opportunity to relieve pressure from crowded highways and congested skies by diverting it to crowded rail cars and congested tracks.

Warshington then added a hint of levity to the proceedings by demonstrating that he had not lost the skills he had needed thirty years ago as a track announcer, telling the press: “Hooste ne beth nat yvele apayed for oother traine certes kan I noon, som deyntee thyng, me thynketh by his tracke, immediately!

A History of Separation Anxiety

In 1997, Congress ordered Amtrak to wean itself from the federal operating subsidies by 2003. Amtrak has never turned a profit since its creation in 1971 and has suckled on more than $23 billion in federal subsidies since then.

Amtrak officials insist that the 1997 agreement never anticipated a cutoff of federal capital assistance: funds to buy train cars and print irrelevant train schedules, for instance. And they contend it’s time for more, not less, federal investment. In fact, according to Warshington, we’ll know it’s not time for more federal investment “when the cows come home.”

To emphasize the point, Amtrak drew up its first long-term capital-spending plan, which is being delivered by rail and should reach Congress and the White House, barring strikes or snow or something, in several weeks. In it, Amtrak offers three scenarios:

For $16 billion in federal support over 20 years, Amtrak says it can provide a level of service equivalent to Third World rail lines, including cars full of chickens and goats, and coach passenger’s seated on rail-car roofs. Amtrak would then begin a decade of weaning. Far-reaching plans to remove gum from station floors and begin shoddy, ineffective repairs to fire safety hazards in New York and New Jersey train tunnels would have to be cancelled. (In a recent report that shocked the transit world, those hazards were described by Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead as “hazardous.”)

The second scenario calls for $30 billion in federal support, $1.5 billion a year for 20 years, to modernize and expand, to be followed by two decades of weaning. The extra money would give Amtrak executives a modern dental plan and pay for a commission to explore ways to expand federal support. A major advertising firm will be employed to design the “Do the Locomotive” ad campaign.*

Amtrak’s final and preferred scenario calls for $798 billion in small, unmarked bills to be delivered directly to Amtrak executives. The money would be employed to fund a bold and visionary plan where every American would get their own sleeping car staffed with a full complement of servants. After this one time cash injection, Amtrak executives assure Congress that they will need no further weaning. “In fact,” said Warshington, “if we receive the funds we’re asking for in this preferred scenario, Congress can rest assured they’ll never see any of us again.”

Amtrak predicts states and private companies would match the federal government’s investment roughly dollar for dollar, or else find themselves branded as enemies of America’s proud railroad heritage.

Any of the plans would represent a major boost in capital spending by the government and, as Warshington put it, “a far more gentle, nurturing sort of weaning.” In the current fiscal year, Amtrak is receiving about $400 million in capital assistance.

* managed to get a sneak preview of the campaign’s theme song. Here’s a small sample:

Everybody’s doin’ a brand-new transit, C’mon baby, do the Locomotive. Let’s go do that environmental bit, C’mon baby, do the Locomotive. Your little baby sister rides for half a fee, We’ve even got a bathroom if you have to pee: So come on, come on, do the Locomotive with me.

February 15, 2001

Gene Callahan is a regular contributor to, and Stu Morgenstern is contributing editor at The Frumious Bandersnatch.

2001, Gene Callahan and Stu Morgenstern

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives

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