Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Philosophy Weekend: Will Americans Vote Against Trains?

By Levi Asher on Sunday, October 14, 2012 07:27 am

It's funny that some people think presidential elections don't matter. There's little doubt that many things will change quickly if Americans make the nihilistic choice to empower Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to lead our government in 2012. Every woman's right to privacy over her health decisions will be threatened. The gains made via Obamacare against corrupt health insurance practices will be reversed. A newly aggressive and muscle-bound foreign policy (think: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney) will make an unwelcome return. In fact, so many changes would occur that we the people have barely even begun to discuss all the vital things that will change if we give these two out-of-touch plutocrats a mandate to run our government according to their ideas.

Let's talk about trains.

Trains are wonderful, beautiful, practical and highly helpful things. Could anybody possibly disagree? As a kid growing up in the dull suburbs of Long Island, New York, I learned to love trains early, because the Long Island Railroad was my lifeline to New York City, Greenwich Village, Times Square, St. Mark's Place, the Strand bookstore, Soho, the Museum of Modern Art, Madison Square Garden.

Later, I used Amtrak to travel to my college, and then used New York City's subways to get to work. I think many Americans have relied on public transportation to improve their lives the same way I have. Public rail transportation is a win-win-win-win: it's a cheap and easy way to get around, it's far better for the environment than private cars, it enables people to get together with families, increase job choices, widen their options for recreation and entertainment. Public transportation is necessary for people who are disabled and cannot drive, or who live in cities and don't own cars, or can't currently afford cars but are taking trains to earn money so that they can afford cars. Can you imagine life without trains? Get ready, because Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are running on a platform to destroy Amtrak, our national train system.

Have you heard about this before? Most people I talk to haven't, even though its an undisputed fact that this is part of the Romney/Ryan economic plan. Amtrak (which has proudly served the entire nation since 1971) is funded by taxpayer money, and even though this is some of the best spending the government can possibly do in terms of improving our lives, our economy and our environment, the Republican party has decided that the half a billion dollars the government spends on Amtrak each year is unnecessary.

The railroads should be privatized, they say. It's amazing that they are willing to conduct financial experiments with services that are so vital to our lives. (They also wanted to privatize Social Security during the Bush presidency, which would have created a tsunami of poverty if the Democrats hadn't stopped this from happening -- guess which side Paul Ryan was on?)

If Amtrak loses its public funding, it will cease to exist, and the impact will be immediate and devastating. Have the Republicans considered how many people will lose their jobs if they can't use Amtrak to get to work? Do they realize many families rely on Amtrak to help them gather together for holidays? Have they considered the loss in entertainment and travel spending, and the impact it would have on the economy? Have they thought about what it would do to our crowded highways, to our fresh air and to our fossil fuel consumption, if trains cease to be a viable alternative to automobiles?

Instead, the kinds of geniuses who gave us Bain Capital and the 2007/2008 Wall Street disaster only see Amtrak as unnecessary spending, as coddling for the teeming middle and lower classes who can't afford to travel by car or airplane. They complain that Amtrak has never earned a profit, not realizing that the profit is in the way it improves all our lives. Yes, it costs taxpayer money, but this is what taxes are for. There is hardly a better way to spend money than on public transportation, and there is also not the slightest bit of evidence that it would help our economy to stop paying $500,000 a year of taxpayer funds to keep our trains moving.

The anti-Amtrak contingent -- led by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan -- also complains that Amtrak is badly managed and inefficient, and this can strike a chord among American voters, because Amtrak customers are often frustrated by problems with its service. When I talk to people about the politics of taxpayer funding, I often sense a hostility towards Amtrak itself, and a desire to punish the allegedly incompetent Amtrak executives by taking away their budget. This is an impulse that really needs to be checked. It's true that a few faceless executives would suffer if Amtrak funding were eliminated, and maybe it's even true that some of these executives deserve to suffer. But, if we cease to have a viable national train system in the USA, the suffering of a few executives will be insignificant compared to the suffering of the American people.

Instead of destroying Amtrak because of suspected poor management, we should expect government to fix the problems, not destroy the service. And do we really know that there is mismanagement? In the past decade, Amtrak's service problems were not helped by the previous Republican president's assaults on public transportation funding (yes, like so many of his proposals, Romney's Amtrak policy is an echo of George W. Bush's), and Amtrak's mediocre record of service may reflect the fact that it has already suffered through unwise budget cuts. We should spend more taxpayer money on Amtrak, not less. It's the type of taxpayer spending that keeps our economy alive.

A few years ago, I began living in Northern Virginia, and travelling between Washington DC and New York City frequently by Amtrak. It's a three-hour journey, it costs about $130 each way, and sometimes I get frustrated by the late trains, the grimy seats, the crying babies and the frequent breakdowns. However, Amtrak gets me where I need to go. I can't imagine the United States of America without Amtrak.

Politicians like to use the word "freedom" a lot. For Americans like me, public transportation is what enables freedom. I can't imagine how the American people could consider electing a president in 2012 -- a super-wealthy one, of course, who probably doesn't know many people who rely on Amtrak for their daily lives -- who doesn't even want to cut our trillions of dollars in military spending, but considers half a billion dollars in Amtrak funding to be a waste of taxpayer funds. It's a sick idea, a Randian idea (of course), and an insult to every American's intelligence.


This article is part of the Philosophy Weekend series. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Randian Moment. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Which Way Is The Road To Serfdom?.


15 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Will Americans Vote Against Trains?"

by TKG on

glad to see you up and error free!

Does the Federal government underwrite Greyhound?

I saw a funny cartoon a while ago. It had JFK proclaiming we will put a man on the moon. Juxtaposed was BHO saying we will build trains.

I like Amtrak and trains. But their practicality for what you are talking about is limited to the population dense urban centered North East corridor.

I think this argument is sky is falling. If they are of use they will stay. Things work that way unless government crusaders and supporters mess things up.

by Levi Asher on

Hey TKG -- well, I do agree that trains are especially important here on the East Coast. Though I do recall that Jack Kerouac wrote about trains on the West Coast in "Dharma Bums", so they're must be a few in your part of the world.

Regardless of where a train line is, trains are important to the people who need to ride on them. And, no, the government doesn't fund Greyhound buses, but trains require special shared resources (like train tracks) that buses don't. And they have big benefits over buses, like they run on electricity instead of gasoline, and they're faster and more comfortable than buses.

I guess I'm just one of those silly 47% who thinks they're entitled to things like food and affordable healthcare and education and public transportation ...

by TKG on

Levi, note I said "for what you are talking about".

Trains are 19th century tech, but they are still ubiquitous and essential to our lives, our society and our economy. There's a recent book about Leland Stanford and others who built the railroads and train companies and their critics, such as Ambose Bierce (yes that Ambrose Bierce) by a Washington Post writer that is on my want to read list.

One of Bierce's strongest arguments was that the RR companies were trying to get out of their obligation to pay back the government for the bonds that underwriting building the system.

They did pay it back.

You are saying Amtrak is not profitable or self sustaining. Why is this?

by Catalyst on

It's not that I think the presidential elections don't matter. I just think that lobbyists and big business are the ones who run this country. Do you disagree with this?

Your ideas hit home though. I used to take the trains from Portland to Seattle and found more pleasure in that than in driving there. I do think we need to cut spending, I just disagree with Romney/Ryan on where it needs to be cut. How about cutting Dept. of Homeland Security? Heart disease kills more Americans than terrorism, yet I havn't heard about any programs or departments to help with that.

I don't trust Obama or Romney but i'd rather not take my chances with Romney.

One last question, would privatizing Amtrak definitely kill it?

by TKG on

There are actually billions of dollars going to fight heart disease.

I agree with getting rid of DHS and TSA.

The book I referred to is "THE GREAT AMERICAN RAILROAD WAR How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took on the  Central Pacific Railroad" by Dennis Drabelle, available on Amazon.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for comments, TKG and Catalyst.

TKG, I don't see any reason why Amtrak should be profitable or self-sustaining. I don't expect schools or hospitals to be profitable or self-sustaining either. We the taxpayers sustain them, because this is some of the best possible use of taxpayer money. Trains and schools and hospitals help society thrive. They cost moderate amounts of money, and in return they make a healthy economy and a free society possible. I think most taxpayers would agree that they get plenty of value for their money when it comes to public transportation. Why screw with a formula that works? The half a billion dollars in public funding is hardly the source of our country's economic problems.

Catalyst, according to the articles I've read (some of which I've linked to above), privatizing Amtrak would cause drastic reductions in the amount of trains available, and in the areas that have any train service at all. It would also raise prices beyond what most working people can pay. Nobody knows exactly how the ordeal of restructuring would play out, but it seems possible that Amtrak would not survive at all, and likely that would survive in a diminished and inferior way. This sure sounds like a lose-lose policy for America: citizens lose travel options, highways become more crowded, Amtrak employees get fired. Is the cost savings worth the damage done? Does anyone want the USA to have a shrinking train system? How is harming Amtrak's ability to keep trains running a forward-thinking or business-friendly or job-creating policy?

by TKG on

In Southern California there are Metrolink trains. I know people who commute on them. Do you know if Metrolink is supported by Federal Funds?

As far as this, where does it end. I like going places. I can't take Amtrak, so I drive. Should everyone one else have to help pay for my gas and my car?

by Levi Asher on

TKG, I bet you know the answer to your question. We don't all pay for your car, but we sure do pay for your ability to use your car. You know: roads, highways, interstates, traffic lights, divider lanes, signs, As a wise man recently said: You didn't build that.

Is Metrolink publicly funded? I bet it is. Most urban or suburban transportation rail lines are. It's a funding system that works very well, and has helped to make this great country thrive for decades.

The fact that Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney and John Boehner and Mitch McConnell can work it out on their Excel spreadsheets that the nation can save money by ending funding for trains doesn't mean that this would work in the real world. It would be a human disaster for families, for the disabled, for people who don't own cars, for people who rely on Amtrak to get to work. This is the kind of dumb idea that even Newt Gingrich once referred to as "right wing social engineering". No thanks.

If they want something to cut, they can start with the military budget, which is far, far, far greater than the public transportation budget.

by TKG on

Levi, this is a great topic. I like trains and I'd like to see maglev trains going from city to city. I can't believe after 30 years that hasn't happened here.

The funny thing is that Amtrak was started to be a bail out for the fat cat rail road magnates who were going belly up becase so few people took trains. It was Nixon who started this beneficent public service. It still puts plenty of cash in to their pockets. Occupy Amtrak!

You state the government puts about half a billion in each year. Wikipedia indicates t was more like 1.3 billion. Nonetheless, the ridership is 30 million per year. Therefore if riders paid only $20 more per year t would cover the half billion shortfall. $50 more per year would cover the $1.3B.

Maybe it's not that simple, I don't know.

But, no matter what, Amtrak or an equivalent accessible rail system isn't going away. Why? Because of the Hawks. The people who are concerned with national security, catastrophe and contingency, they aren't going to let such a rail system go away.

by Steve Plonk on

I live in an area that currently is not served, locally, by passenger trains. Our town, Chattanooga, TN, grew up with the railroads. I think that it is time that we got regional money to get passenger trains to our area again.

Currently, we have to go either to Atlanta, GA, or Memphis, TN to catch a train. The last Amtrak train to run from Birmingham, AL to Nashville, TN ran in 1978. I am quite certain that our region, the Mid-South, could support a passenger train system through AMTRAK which would connect portions of Tennessee, Western North Carolina, & Kentucky which are no longer served.

If AMTRAK and/or the federal government won't do it, I can't see why a regional commission--like the Appalachian Regional Commission--can't step up and lobby for the money to provide services. That also includes more bus services...

Yes, I certainly support Obama for many reasons... Among them, is that Obama is for strengthening passenger train service. A Romney & Ryan administration would be bad for public transportation.

by michaelamichael on

As a Briish person, the only thing I can add is that our railways were privatised (in the Thatcher era, I feel sure), and the real cost of a ticket has risen and risen. Also, recently, Richard Branson's Virgin and some other companies applied for a line franchise. The franchise went to a company who offered the most money, but who also promised to deliver various improvements in service and various other passenger benefits, while at the same time keeping ticket costs down. Richard Branson then went on a media campaign and began a legal campaign to have the unrealistically structured franchise bid reversed. What happens now is that we the people will have to pay about 20 million pounds or more in compensation to both companies. They are also en route to privatising our health service, beginning to edge the private sector in, to widespread opposition. My opinion is that some things ought not to be run for profit because they are essential and should be driven as much by need as possible -- I would say health and trains fit into that group.

by michaelamichael on

Oh and Steve Plonk is really going to mention that he comes from a railway-friendly town named Chattanooga and not mention the Chattanooga Choo Choo song? Really?! Really!?

by Levi Asher on

I was thinking the same thing about Chattanooga -- how can Chattanooga NOT be a train town?? Incredible! Luckily, we can still shuffle off to Buffalo.

by Jon on

Perhaps everyone doesn't pay for your gas and your car, but they do pay for the roads, bridges and highways that you drive on. Even with tolls, none of them are self-sustaining, yet we don't talk about privatizing I-5.

In '78 I took the TEE from Stockholm to Venice to Athens. A rail pass was hunert buck fer 3 months. Trains full of backpacking kids and we was all like friends sharing chocolate, maps, wine, whatever. On the way from Madrid to Lisbon the train stopped in the Portugali wilderness, picked up a couple of hunters right out of Bevly Hillblee's - bearded raggedly gents with shotguns & a burlap bag. In the bag was a live porkypine. Wierd stuff, but fun. Yeah, I'd say elections mean everything.

Add new comment