Fifty years ago, Amtrak began operating our nation’s rail passenger service. Created by Congress, it was an attempt to bring balance to our nation’s dysfunctional transportation policy. In spite of many obstacles Amtrak has survived and continues to offer a much-needed alternative to driving and flying.
Since the creation of the Aviation (1938) and Highway (1956) Trust Funds, private railroads struggled to compete against these heavily government subsidized modes of transportation. In 1971 private railroads were given a choice to opt out of their passenger responsibilities in exchange for allowing Amtrak passenger service to operate on their tracks. Since then, Amtrak’s ridership has grown to over 32 million passengers annually (pre-pandemic).
Although the pandemic has effected travel, the uniqueness of Amtrak’s socially distanced private rooms on its long distance trains has remained popular during these difficult times.
There are many benefits to having a national rail passenger service. Economically, Amtrak long-distance trains are vital to the hundreds of rural communities that have few transportation choices. Amtrak also provides an option when interstate highways are frequently shut down due to inclement weather. Air travel was shut down a few years ago because of a volcanic eruption that prompted a safety concern over particulates fowling jet turbines. Having Amtrak as an all-weather alternative is crucial to our economy.
Amtrak also offers environmental benefits. The remarkable energy efficiency of the railroad wheel on the steel rail translates into huge energy savings and a dramatic reduction in pollution. Compare this to the astonishing amount of fuel wasted to lift an airliner on takeoff or to allow for proper traction of the automobile tire on asphalt. Keep in mind the environmental cost of carving roads and freeways through fragile ecosystems costing tax payers in some cases a million dollars per mile per lane. For those who think electric vehicles are the answer, remember they share the same environmentally damaging and congested highways as the internal combustion vehicles.
The passenger train is also impressive in their flexibility and capacity. Aircraft, automobiles and buses carry a fixed number of passengers that can safely be accommodated. An Amtrak passenger train can expand to as much as 18 cars when demand calls for space, accommodating hundreds of passengers safely and comfortably.
On this Amtrak anniversary there is bipartisan support for our rail passenger service. There is legislation to provide Amtrak with a rail passenger trust fund. However there is still a regressive element within the Republican party supported by conservative think tanks who are obsessed with forcing Americans to drive or fly.
Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee offered an amendment to the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to defund Amtrak. (His amendment was soundly defeated.) It is this kind of backward thinking that keeps our nation from moving forward.
Critics also claim that Amtrak does not make a profit while at the same time ignoring that interstate freeways are profitless and the airline industry frequently needs to be bailed out after events such as 9/11 and the pandemic. Americans profit from Amtrak for it fulfills an American value: Choice. Amtrak as a travel choice means relief from congested roads, high gas prices and the dreaded middle seat when flying.
So climb aboard — perhaps in your own private room — or in coach. (Even the coach seats on Amtrak are more comfortable and roomy than flying first class.) Enjoy a meal in the dining car and savor the glorious American landscape out Amtrak’s window.
Tad Calcara plays principal clarinet with the Utah Symphony and has been a resident of Salt Lake City for over 20 years.