High-speed passenger rail is important public service
The recent Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia again highlights the overall dilemma of passenger rail in the United States. Worldwide leadership in high-speed passenger trains currently resides in Japan and western Europe. The Amtrak Northeast Corridor (NEC), Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Washington, is the closest example of what could be a truly high-speed passenger rail line in the United States. However, the New York-Philadelphia-Washington portion of the NEC – owned, electrified in the 1920s-1930s and operated by the former Pennsylvania Railroad – has been allowed to deteriorate into far less than what the dense population residing along the NEC needs and deserves.
I agree with many other observers that the current nationwide passenger rail configuration under Amtrak, financially supported largely by the federal government, is neither desirable nor sustainable. Passenger rail in the United States has typically been a money-loser, not a profit center. In reality, it has been and is a public service and needs to be understood as a public service. Public service needs to be financially supported by the people who use it, whether that be the individual customers, state and local governments or the federal government.
In place of the current approach, it would be better for Congress to concentrate federal financial support on making the NEC into a world-class high-speed passenger service, allowing those who know railroading best to operate the system, and then use available federal funding, power of persuasion and expertise to assist state and local governments to organize, on a regional basis, the services their populations need and deserve.
Amtrak as currently set up is not working, but the problems can be resolved if the powers that be are willing!
Joseph G. Streamer