» Without a commitment of more federal funds for improvement, an initiative to transfer rights to private entities to operate trains along the Northeast Corridor would not accomplish much.
In order to take advantage of the roadways effectively, bus drivers — not to mention car drivers — do not need to take possession of said roads. Indeed, they need only to be in possession of a vehicle that can navigate along the streets and be able to pay for fuel, part of whose cost returns to cover many of the expenses required to build and maintain the roads. Many different vehicles, owned by many different people or organizations, can share the roads, usually without problems. Sometimes, there are accidents, which can be mostly avoided through proper design of the roadways, and there is sometimes congestion, which can be relieved through road fees. Fundamentally, the system works: There are vehicle owners, usually private individuals, and there are infrastructure owners, usually the public sector, and they get along fine.
All of this, I know, is obvious. But when it comes to rail transportation, this formula has been avoided, especially in the U.S. The owner of railroad tracks usually is also the operator of trains along them. When other operators want to move their own trains in, conflicts typically erupt. The frequent disagreements about acceptable service levels between national rail operator Amtrak and freight railroads on tracks that the latter owns (and which it isn’t very happy to share) are indicative of this problem. But these disagreements are not irreconcilable. Indeed, an infrastructure owner that is able to arbitrate between competing operators could be more effective in producing efficient service for everyone than might be an owner-operator, which discriminates against other operators.
In this context, yesterday’s revealing of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica’s (R-FL) plan for the Northeast Corridor raises a number of interesting questions. Convinced of the value of private sector competition and promoting a pull-out of the federal government from every public service imaginable, Mr. Mica has submitted a proposal that attempts to re-imagine the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s flagship route and the nation’s most-traveled intercity rail line, as a place where, fundamentally, the rules of the road — but not the railroad — could apply.
The bill (draft text) would force Amtrak to abandon its control of (much of) the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, handing it over to the Department of Transportation, which in turn would lease it to an “Executive Committee.” Amtrak would have to give up all of its assets and it would loose federal funding. The Committee, in charge of infrastructure and setting pricing policies, would then engage a public-private partnership (PPP) with a private group, which would commit to upgrading the line and then operating trains to offer two-hour trips between New York and Washington and 2h30 between New York and Boston — within ten years, twenty years more quickly than Amtrak has said it would be able to make roughly the same improvements.
Mr. Mica also claims that this could be done at a cheaper price than Amtrak’s $117 billion proposal.
Outside of the Northeast, states would have to offer their rail corridors to competitive bidding; current subsidies to Amtrak would simply be redistributed to the winners of those operations bids.
Despite the wide-ranging proposed effects of the bill as summarized, the manner in which any of this would be implemented remains incredibly unclear. How would intercity rail operators interact with the freight and commuter railroads that also use the tracks, in the Northeast and elsewhere? If a PPP were implemented, how much would the government agree to commit to pay for improvements?
Unfortunately, the bill would not provide a realistic way to promote true operational competition. Nor does it would it offer a promise of actual federal support to fund an upgrade of the corridor, which seems unlikely to be sponsored by private entities alone. Most problematic would be the transfer of authority over the line’s management to the currently non-existant Executive Committee, whose ability to make decisions about rail properties has yet to be tested, let alone proven.
Fortunately, the proposal is unlikely to make it through the Senate, where Democrats and other Republican supporters of Amtrak are likely to prevent the bill from passing even if it makes it through the House. The American intercity rail system and the governance bodies that oversee it at the federal and state levels are too underdeveloped to be able to guarantee that this semi-privatization wouldn’t be a disaster.
But Mr. Mica’s bill does articulate a number of policy changes that could play an important role in shoring up passenger service in the Northeast. The status quo, in which Amtrak operates relatively infrequent and slow passenger trains within the nation’s most important megaregion, certainly is not ideal. If managed appropriately, the separation of track ownership and line operations could allow for a situation in which multiple operators offer competing services along the same routes, just as Megabus and Bolt Bus compete for the most customers on I-95.
In mainland Europe, E.U. regulations have mandated that national rail companies like France’s SNCF or Germany’s DB allow other operators (in many cases, SNCF and DB affiliates) to run trains between similar destinations. Though I am not convinced that this will produce universally positive results, it will at least likely result in lower fares for customers on the most heavily trafficked rail corridors. And focusing on the most-used lines is clearly Mr. Mica’s goal; according to the bill, the second-highest stated priority for potential investors are “activities that benefit the greatest number of passengers” (just after safety). Amtrak’s current policies do not exactly fit that bill since they are designed to push lower-income individuals (like myself) onto slower and less comfortable intercity buses.
Yet the Mica proposal would not produce true competition in rail operations. It would encourage competition in rail operations contracts. Rather than invest in the infrastructure and then open up the rights to use tracks, the PPP structure as proposed would be a build-operate-maintain system in which one private group would invest in improvements and then have control over operations, which it would perform itself. Mr. Mica has repeatedly referred to Amtrak as a “Soviet-Style” system because it has a monopoly over its services, but it is hard to see how a PPP extended over a long contract would be any different, except that it would charge even higher prices to make up for the initial cost of capital improvements and — even worse — it would be literally banned from cross-subsidizing other services with the profits, according to the proposed bill. Is this in the public interest?
The biggest question of all, though, is whether Mr. Mica is in complete denial about the extent of either the private sector’s ingenuity or their collective willingness to invest in public infrastructure. While it may sound nice, asserting that corporations can rebuild the Northeast Corridor in 10 years at a far lower cost to the taxpayers than Amtrak has proposed could is a stretch. And even a $50 billion upgrade would be larger than any single private investment in infrastructure ever in the U.S. What evidence does Mr. Mica have that a plan like this could move forward?
Image above: Inside New Haven’s station along the Northeast Corridor, from Flickr user Andrew Ciscel (cc)