Sign Up

Iraq’s Railways and Amtrak

Is U.S. reconstruction policy abroad more sensible than it is at home?

October 14, 2003

Is U.S. reconstruction policy abroad more sensible than it is at home?

Back in the 1980s, I had to give a speech in Baltimore. After a slow and painful experience traveling just 50 miles by train, I opened my speech with a joke. At the height of the debate over detente between America and the Soviet Union, I compared my trip along one of the richest and busiest routes in the United States to rail travel in rural Russia.

Needless to say, the comparison occasioned incredulous laughter from the audience.

The sad truth is that over the past quarter of a century, little has changed as far as American railways are concerned. But, it turns out that politicians in Washington are not as clueless as they are made to be, after all.

The $87 billion package to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, submitted by the Bush Administration to the U.S. Congress, actually lays down a rational program for getting those countries' economies on their feet again.

The bill contains, for example, a sum of $303 million to restart the Iraqi railway system, which is in disarray. Less than 40% of locomotives are functional — and despite its extensive network, Iraq's railways account for less than 30% of all traffic volume.

Clearly, U.S. political leaders understand that railways are crucial to the smooth functioning of a modern economy — and that in the modern world, railroads cannot operate without substantial government funding.

This is not exactly an earth-shattering discovery. Most people in Western Europe and Japan, for example, realized this a long time ago.

EU countries, for example, paid out €40 billion in public subsidies to European railroads in 2001 alone. Japan's privately owned high-speed commuter railroads may operate at a profit, but the Japanese government provides a variety of hidden infrastructure subsidies.

There are also tax-free allowances for commuters to ride trains to work. As a result, European and Japanese citizens also have well-functioning passenger railway networks linking their major cities — which allows them to cut down on pollution, ease congestion and reduce oil consumption.

They have also left the United States far behind as far as transportation technology is concerned. Unveiled with such fanfare a few years ago, Amtrak’s Acela high-speed rail service between Boston and Washington is actually crawling by Western European and Japanese standards.

There, trains have been routinely flying at over 135 miles per hour — and even 200 miles — for several decades now. To be sure, the United States also subsidizes its railways. But what it spends on Amtrak is a pittance by European standards.

Since its founding 32 years ago, Amtrak has received a total of just $26 billion in taxpayer subsidies.

In its 2004 fiscal budget, the Bush Administration proposed just $900 million to overhaul Amtrak — half of what the railroad company says it needs to keep providing its current shabby level of service.

That total would come out to $3.06 for every American, as opposed to the $12.30 subsidy for every Iraqi contained in the Bush Administration’s funding request. Free-market proponents are calling for all subsidies to Amtrak to be abolished completely — and for Amtrak to be allowed to go out of business.

It is important to remember that, outside its railways, America's transportation network hardly functions without subsidies — or on a free-market basis.

The irony is that other forms of transportation have long been on government dole as well — consuming much more of the U.S. taxpayers’ money.

For example, U.S. airlines are effectively bankrupt. The $15 billion bailout package approved after the September 11 terrorist attacks was clearly only a temporary stop-gap measure of financial support.

Airport construction and maintenance figures prominently, as well.

Moreover, air travel is costly — and a nuisance on short hops, such as from New York City to Washington, D.C. and Boston.

There, a 20-minute flight requires an hour-long trip to and from the airport on both ends, plus an hour on even routine check-ins these days.

Everybody else around the world is moving away from that absurdity — witness the success of the Eurotunnel and the high-speed trains connecting London to the continent.

As is well-known, love is usually expensive — and America's love affair with the motor car is no exception. The federal government, as well as state and local authorities, spend billions every year to maintain, repair — and expand — the massive network of interstate highways and state roads.

And this is only a fraction of the total bill the United States foots every year because its citizens are constrained to driving everywhere. There is a massive oil import bill to consider, as well as the hidden costs of some 40,000 deaths per year suffered on the country's highways.

Then, there is the social waste of countless man hours spent driving or being stuck in traffic jams.

The Northeast corridor, between Boston and Washington, is notorious for its overcrowding — and tailor-made for an efficient high-speed rail link that is still nowhere in sight.

The request for subsidies for mobilizing Iraq's railways shows that politicians in Washington understand where the future of modern transportation infrastructure really lies.

Obviously, it is not a matter of ignorance — but of misguided priorities.

The question is: When will Americans stand up for their rights and demand that their politicians get their priorities straight — and do what the rest of the world has been doing so successfully?

It would be a bitter irony indeed if Iraq got a well-functioning, U.S.-taxpayer subsidized railway system — while Americans have to make do with a rail transportation system that is reminiscent of a developing country’s.

That’s an exaggeration, you say? I was recently on a Metroliner that left New York City at 6 a.m. and did not arrive in Washington, D.C. until 11:20 — because the engine broke down somewhere in northern Delaware.

If all goes according to plan, this trip should take no more than three hours and five minutes. But, when the average age of the engines is 18 years old, even the best plans go awry.

Pulled by such an oldie, passengers found themselves unceremoniously dumped off the train after a long, long wait — then eventually picked up at a small station by a much later train that had to make a special stop.

Perhaps it is time for Washington to treat the United States — especially the overcrowded Northeast corridor — at least as well as it plans to treat Iraq.