Fighting for Amtrak, transportation and good government

High speed trains in London

High speed trains in London

The recent Amtrak derailment in Pennsylvania has once again exposed America’s embarrassing train transportation system. Parts of this system are up to 150 years old, and it’s falling apart. Yet, when Democrats, including President Barack Obama, propose to modernize our train system and build high-speed trains, Republicans oppose these plans.

Predictably, after the Amtrak accident, in addition to the horrible optics of simultaneous Republican budget cuts, we are hearing the usual Republican talking points about America’s train transportation system. Here are the main GOP talking points, along with some possible responses:

“Amtrak Loses Money and Should be Privatized”

  • Of course Amtrak loses money. It’s a public service that was created through legislation signed by Republican President Richard Nixon and is a publicly-funded corporation. The very first section of Amtrak’s implementing legislation states:

    The Congress finds that modern, efficient, intercity railroad passenger service is a necessary part of a balanced transportation system; … that rail passenger service can help to end the congestion on our highways and the overcrowding of airways and airports; that the traveler in America should to the maximum extent feasible have freedom to choose the mode of travel most convenient to his needs; … Federal financial assistance as well as investment capital from the private sector of the economy is needed for this purpose ….  [emphasis added]

  •  The United States is a Country, Not a Corporation. Our public interstate highways don’t have to make a profit to justify themselves. Neither do our sewer systems, water systems, electrical grids or our armed forces for that matter. These are considered necessary elements of a modern, first-world society.
  • The privatization push is the same argument conservatives make about the U.S. Postal Service. However, if we turn over Amtrak to private corporations, we’re likely to see the equivalent of UPS (which raised its rates another 4.9% last December) or FedEx for our train service. That would mean (1) much higher prices, which would kill off ridership and send passengers to planes, highways or just staying home; (2) decreased service, as less profitable areas are abandoned; and (3) little likelihood of modernization of our tracks, trains and train systems, as private corporations simply would not risk the capital investments needed for such modernization.
  • Governments of virtually all developed countries with modern train systems heavily fund such systems. But this isn’t wasteful spending, it’s investment. The difference is that each such country gets an amazing return on their investment by speeding up commerce and the delivery of goods, increasing business productivity by moving business people around faster to their meetings and worksites, etc. This is in addition to the important, but difficult to measure, improvement in quality of life and standard of living in these countries.
  • Moreover, building a modern train transportation system in the U.S., including high-speed rail, would require the participation of many American companies and workers, and thus would be great for business and the economy. This kind of win-win forward thinking is the essence of what we like to call Good Government.

“The Amtrak Accident was a Result of Driver Error (or even Homosexuality)”

  • First, the facts are still coming in as to what caused the Amtrak derailment. The FBI is now investigating whether someone threw an object such as a rock at the locomotive. Nevertheless, even if the latest accident was a result of human error (such as a medical event, fatigue, inattention, etc. by the engineer), there are safety systems that can be put in place to help prevent such accidents. Why would Republicans oppose safer train travel for millions of Americans?
  • We have plenty of safety systems in other areas of transportation. For example, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security (a Big Government institution signed into law by a GOP president and supported by Republicans) has numerous air travel safety requirements, including (1) having a co-pilot in the cockpit, in case something happens to the pilot; (2) locked cockpit doors; (3) additional security checkpoint screenings such as removing shoes and limited liquids carried on board, etc. Likewise, automobile travel is subject to numerous safety procedures, such as (1) police patrols; (2) red light cameras and speed cameras, (3) emissions checks, etc. Why would Republicans single out train travel, which millions of Americans rely on, to skimp on safety?

In short, when the Amtrak train derailed, as with other disasters and accidents, the Right/Left war over the narrative immediately commenced. Conservatives have pulled out their Shock Doctrine tactics and have tried to use the Amtrak train wreck to push for their policies. We should similarly push for ours.

Photo by Jon Curnow, used under Creative Commons license.

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