Martinez: A rail reversal? That's not it

October 9, 2012 

When responses started rolling in to my recent Amtrak column, a theme quickly emerged. Many readers took the description of my first trip solely on public transportation as a mea culpa after years of deriding those who see passenger rail as a 21st century solution to today’s transportation challenges.

Not so.

I have no problem with public transportation per se. It’s the low ridership and, hence, high taxpayer subsidies that I have problems with. I don’t see why non-Amtrak riders in Montana had to chip in for my Durham to Washington, D.C., trip, particularly when I would have paid double the fare to escape high gas prices and D.C. parking rates.

In fact, raising fares could be just the ticket for Amtrak. CEO Joe Boardman reported to Congress a few weeks ago that the passenger rail system now covers 85 percent of its operating budget with ticket sales and other revenues. Much of that revenue boost was fueled by record ridership of 30.2 million passengers in fiscal year 2012.

Amtrak still received $466 million from Uncle Sam in FY 2012, but that is down significantly from a peak of $755 million in FY 2004. Moreover, Amtrak has reduced its debt from $4 billion in FY 2002 to $1.6 billion in FY 2012.

With Amtrak seemingly on the right financial track, ending operating subsidies is an attainable goal. Taxpayer funding will still be required for infrastructure, and that’s a reasonable role for government, according to reader Zane Katiskis. He noted in an e-mail that the roads, runways and the air traffic control system I previously used on D.C. trips were built with federal dollars. Point taken.

E-mailer Bob Grabarek told me I have it wrong regarding my complaint about the bumpy ride during the Amtrak trip. That had seemed reasonable to me, given the train’s steel wheels were connected to a steel spring and were riding over steel tracks.

Grabarek wrote: “The suspension system that is found on the coaches and business class cars on the Carolinian and Silver Star is primarily an air-bag system. This arrangement provides the most comfortable ride possible. There is a steel spring in the suspension system, but it is not the only suspension member and is used only in case of a deflated air bag.

“The root cause of the bouncy ride is irregularities in the track structure. When revenues decline due to a reduction in freight traffic, railroads have several means of reducing their costs. One approach is to defer maintenance of the track. Doing so does not compromise safety, but it does lead to a rough ride for fast-moving passenger trains.”

That makes sense. My bones, by the way, rattled most in North Carolina.

Since writing the column I’ve learned Amtrak will experiment with running some trains at 165 miles per hour. Add this to its development of Android apps and a website that’s not only easy to use but offers D.C. hotel packages that actually rival, if not outright beat, prices on traditional Internet travel sites.

Does all this sound like a government-run agency to you?

I have one more money-making suggestion for Amtrak: get into the oil business. That’s what Delta Air Lines has done. Delta paid $150 million (about the price of a single Boeing 777) for a shut-down Pennsylvania refinery in order to produce jet fuel. The airline will import crude from the North Dakota Bakken shale deposit. Already the refinery is reaping a reward. Last week Delta upped by 2 percent its third quarter operating profit margin, citing solid bookings and fuel savings produced by the refinery.

Experts say the shipping costs are the weakness in Delta’s refinery plan. Crude is transported in and jet fuel shipped out via rail. However, if Amtrak follows Delta’s example, I doubt rail costs will be much of a problem.

Mea culpa on rail? No way. Willing to praise a government-run agency that’s embracing innovation? I’m on board with that.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez (rickjmartinez2@gmail.com) is news director at WPTF, NCN News and SGRToday.com

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