America’s passenger rail service once set the standard for the world. Films such as “Twentieth Century Limited” showed the luxury and sophistication of rail travel. A.J. Liebling, a writer for The New Yorker who lived to eat, said that the “Panama Limited” had the best kitchen between New Orleans and Chicago.
The sit-up-all-night coach seat of a train was the way out of the Deep South for millions of people during the 1930s. In Mississippi, as in other states, anyone who planned to travel, at whatever level of fare and for whatever reason, either took the car — and many families had no car — or went down to the depot, which was a constant hub of activity, and boarded a passenger train.
That was then.
This is now: Of the country’s 450 railroad companies, Amtrak is one of only two that are not privately owned. (The other is the state-owned Alaska Railroad.) And Amtrak, the only passenger rail line, is fighting for its survival.
In February, the Bush Administration deleted Amtrak’s operating subsidy of $1.2 billion from the 2006 budget. The administration presented Congress with a bill that privatizes Amtrak and forces it to compete with other private rail companies for contracts given out by the states.
By the late 1940s and early 1950s, freight had become the big moneymaker for the railroads. But the government forced the railroads to honor past commitments and continue to carry passengers, despite increasing competition from airlines and from the massive new interstate highway system that the federal government was building.
In 1958, Congress allowed the railroads to discontinue hundreds of unprofitable passenger routes and, in 1970, it removed the passenger-carrying requirement and formed Amtrak. In 1971, Amtrak took over the operation of almost all of the country’s intercity passenger lines.
The plan was for the federal government to subsidize Amtrak in its beginning years and then for Amtrak to become profitable. The plan hasn’t worked: In its 34 years, Amtrak has never operated in the black.
Three routes in Mississippi
Amtrak, which carried 25 million passengers last year, operates three routes in Mississippi. The “Sunset Limited,” running from Florida to California, stops at the Gulf Coast cities of Pascagoula, Gulfport, Biloxi and Bay St. Louis. The New Orleans to New York “Crescent” serves Picayune, Hattiesburg, Laurel and Meridian. And the “City of New Orleans” passes through Greenwood, Yazoo City, Jackson, Hazlehurst, Brookhaven and McComb on its Chicago to New Orleans run.
Ten Mississippi mayors have joined together to lobby Congress to preserve Amtrak service in their cities. In a letter to the Mississippi congressional delegation, the mayors said, “We believe that the proposal advocated in the administration’s budget to force Amtrak into bankruptcy is misguided and will be detrimental to the health and vitality of our communities.
“Mississippi has very limited mass transit options and losing Amtrak would be a further setback to our efforts to improve mobility in the state.”
Mayor Susan Vincent of Laurel said, “It is vitally important for communities to have transportation corridors. And having passenger rail service is important to Laurel.
“People are in a hurry and they often fly, but the U.S. needs several modes of transportation. After September 11th, planes weren’t flying. Only Amtrak was running. With the threat of terrorist attacks and the possibility of an oil crisis in the future, it doesn’t make sense to dismantle our only passenger rail system.”
Some 4,500 passengers used Amtrak at the Laurel depot in 2004.
Many in the Senate have voiced opposition to the administration’s Amtrak plan. U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said that the plan was a “fantasy ride.”
“I don’t know of bus service in any city that pays for itself,” U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) said. “We need this, and it’s going to take some taxpayer dollars.”
U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who chairs a Commerce Committee panel that oversees the railroads, said that the Bush Administration was “kicking this ball to the states because it can’t figure out what to do” and asked, “How did this administration come up with such a ridiculous proposal?”
Lott argues that “with our nation experiencing ever-increasing energy costs, terrorist attacks and congested airports, rail passenger service certainly not only has a place but a lot of potential sure to be needed.”
One commuter train can carry as many people as 1,000 automobiles.
In late April, the House of Representatives Transportation Committee unanimously approved a bill that authorizes $5 billion over three years for Amtrak. Separate legislation provides a blueprint for high-speed rail infrastructure improvements by the states and gives states authority to issue $12 billion in federal tax-exempt bonds and $20 billion in federal tax-credit bonds for infrastructure improvements for high-speed rail.
Amtrak president David Gunn said in late April that Amtrak was “undertaking a series of bold and comprehensive strategic reform initiatives.” These are designed to meet criticism that Amtrak has been profligate in the past.
Amtrak carried some 25 million passengers last year. A Transportation Department spokesperson stated that “fundamental change in the way we support intercity passenger rail service is not only necessary but inevitable.”
In its 34 years of existence, Amtrak has received $29 billion in federal subsidies. Last year, it lost $600 million.
“Cash crunches arrive more often than the trains do,” according to The Economist magazine. “In 2001, the company mortgaged part of New York’s Penn Station, generating 16 years of debt payments, to get through a three-month cash shortfall. In 2002, it borrowed $100 million from the Department of Transportation.”
The Amtrak scenario will play itself out in Washington and all people in Mississippi and other states can do is depend on their senators and representatives. And wait.
The House’s Transportation Committee’s bailout bill for Amtrak still has to pass the full House and then face review and action by the Bush Administration.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at email@example.com.