Archive for Thursday, January 8, 2009

Passenger rail subsidy like any other

January 8, 2009

I’d like to add my two cents’ worth to the support for Kansas’ plans to study the feasibility of expanding passenger rail service from Kansas City to Oklahoma.

Specifically, the plan is to look at adding a Kansas City-Oklahoma City segment to Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer, which now operates daily between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas.

The move would give Kansas City, Lawrence, Topeka and Newton an additional two trains a day, doubling their current component. Emporia and Wichita would be linked to the rest of the country by train again, as would perhaps Strong City and Winfield or Arkansas City.

This service would be partly underwritten by a state subsidy, as Missouri does in getting service between Kansas City and St. Louis. Last year, Missouri spent $8 million to provide two trains a day between Kansas City and St. Louis. In all, 14 states contract with Amtrak to supplement local service. The other states are: California, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin. In addition, Amtrak provides commuter rail service under contracts with California, Maryland, Connecticut and Virginia.

Incidentally, the Missouri Department of Transportation is conducting a contest to name the state’s rail service. Until Jan. 23, voters can choose between Missouri Rail Blazer, Missouri River Runner, River Cities Corridor, ShowMeMO and Truman Service. If you’ve a mind, you can cast your ballot online at modot.org. But I digress.

Years ago, you could get to virtually any place in America by passenger train. Over time, of course, that changed, as more and more people got automobiles. Before the creation of Amtrak in 1970, passenger service was available between all major U.S. cities and many small towns.

It is true that, in the final days of private rail passenger service, what was provided was often not anything that would really be recognized as service, per se. Trains were often shabby and dirty, and crews were sometimes not terribly accommodating. This was largely because ridership had decreased as more people purchased cars in the years after World War II and then long-distance air travel became a better proposition. I’ve even heard it suggested that, when it became clear the railroads could no longer make good money by hauling passengers, they made the service as unattractive as possible, driving customers away so they could cite declining ridership statistics on their abandonment applications.

Through the years, politicians and publics have balked at paying subsidies for passenger rail service, even though rail travel is the most fuel-efficient means of intercity transportation.

What too many people fail to realize is that all forms of transport are, in some respect, public utilities, and will require some form of public subsidy. Just think about it: how could you have highway travel without multilane, limited-access highways, built and maintained at government expense? The same is true for air travel, which could not be safely done without massive public expenses on airports and traffic-control systems.

So now the idea is to see if enough people will use this expanded service if the state ponies up the money. The odds seem pretty good to me. It’s probably worth noting that Amtrak ridership overall is up. According to the latest issue of Trains Magazine, Amtrak systemwide ridership was up 10 percent, year over year, as of the end of September and 4 percent as of the end of October, while air traffic for the same period was down 11 percent.

For my money, we shouldn’t stop at looking at expanding service into Oklahoma. For one, and I’m sure I’m not alone, I’d like to see resumption of service between Kansas City and Denver.

John Beal is the retired editor of The Eudora News’ World Company sister publications The Shawnee Dispatch and Bonner Springs Chieftain.

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