"Every man has a right to his own opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts."

Bernard Baruch

It often seems that proper, respectful public discourse is a thing of the past. If nothing else, our society now sits at a cyclical low point.
Perhaps technology makes it far too easy to mouth off. After all, prior to the internet's rise, it was quite unusual to hear someone being publicly labeled a "Nazi" simply because they held to a different set of values or a unique system of belief.
Now, anyone with a keyboard and time on his hands can play the fool.
Conversely, someone who is thoughtful and articulate is often overlooked or, worse yet, excluded from public debate because they dare to broach subjects deemed unsuitable.
Obviously, this might include any discussion regarding things like religion and politics.
Thankfully, our own Larry Kaufman ignored this standard protocol. With the support of others willing to publish his thoughts, he penned a profound review of the G.O.P.'s recently approved platform and its blatant attack against high speed railway development, Amtrak and intercity passenger service in general.
The piece is entitled RNC: A little hypocrisy goes too far. For those who've not yet read his essay, it can be found on-line, courtesy of the Railway Age magazine:
Solidly accurate and faultlessly logical, it's a pleasure to read.
In a few short paragraphs, Larry touches on at least five principals which every serious and sincere voter needs to know, and everyone involved in the railroad industry on any level should firmly grasp.

1. Eliminating Amtrak subsidies means eliminating Amtrak, period.
Now, I'll admit, there are many on the freight side of things who might see no problem with such an outcome. Less governmental involvement in day-to-day operations and no interference from passenger train services would probably rank among the most popular reasons given.
Still, it's a fact that blows a hole right through oft-stated arguments supporting "privatisation" of the N.R.P.C.
Even Acela, Amtrak's Northeast Corridor flagship, isn't "profitable" in the classic sense. Sure, that specific service covers what is known (among other things) as "above-the-rail" costs; however, the remaining cash doesn't even begin to support infrastructure maintenance, station facilities and administrative budgets. And what of passenger ticketing and reservations, rolling stock improvements, marketing and advertising, and the like?
Cut Amtrak's taxpayer-supported financial lifeline and it'll not only be trains like the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight that will die; it will also be every one of the many trains the company fields along the N.E.C.
That leads us to the next point:

2. Killing Amtrak will essentially mean the death of domestic intercity passenger train service.
Once Amtrak is out of the way, is there anyone with a knowledge of the industry who honestly believes some other organisation will be in a position to fill the void?
More to the point, even if there was another entity standing at the ready, do you think our Class Is would allow it to happen? [If you have any questions regarding that possibility, I dare you to mention the phrase "open access" in an executive suite!]
Of course, along the Northeast Corridor, some independent operators might step into the breach; however, that presumes a few things up front, including the formation of a new-and-improved governmental agency to take Amtrak's place as owner/operator of the N.E.C. and a greater (not lesser) need for taxpayer support of that infrastructure. After all, any "for profit" companies which run the Acela, Metroliner or TurboTrain of tomorrow will want to take the word "profit" seriously. To presume private financial involvement in the corridor beyond simple user fees is preposterous.
In addition, we'll see no substantial reduction in administrative costs, a sizeable chunk of operating subsidy will remain in need of forgiveness, and the new entity will serve less than half of Amtrak's current annual ridership and find itself supported by far fewer influential politicians.
Oh, well; one thing is certain. Without Amtrak at the helm, whatever might happen will be made all the more difficult due to an oft' cited fact:

3. The U.S. still has no uniform, comprehensive national transportation policy in place (and we've been given no reason to believe one might be forthcoming).
Larry's composition makes it crystal clear: what this nation does (or does not do) with passenger train services, or any other alternative modes of mass transportation, is a matter of public policy. The way we spend our money, design our cities, respond to our energy needs or environmental concerns or increasing levels of congestion...all these things, ultimately, involve policy decisions.
We reject (or ignore) this truth at our own peril.
Our federal government could, after long and meaningful deliberation, decide we do not need intercity passenger trains. They might, with a straight face, declare that the "drive-or-fly" society we've so carefully crafted remains sustainable over the long-term.
There's no question I'd vehemently disagree and strongly oppose any action taken upon the basis of those decisions; but, I would have greater respect for that approach than I do with what passes for national transport "planning" today: throwing a few (million) bucks at something which looks good and generates some votes while completely disregarding multimodalism, much less true intermodalism.
It's that sort of rudderless conceptualisation which helped create a continent-wide system of taxpayer-owned, controlled access roadways running parallel to privately-owned railroad lines - roadways that could not survive without a dedicated place at the public feeding trough.
You know, this is one thing the highway lobby and trucking industry loves to deny:

4. A subsidy is a subsidy is a subsidy.
Use whatever euphemisms you might wish: fuel tax or user fee or trust fund. We're still discussing taxes, coming out of our pockets, aiding private concerns. These private companies are then in a advantageous position to compete directly against other firms which, for whatever reason(s), don't rate a stipend.
Furthermore, ignoring for a moment the specious argument that, somehow, a tax only upon those who benefit from a service isn't really a "tax," the fees collected still don't even begin to cover current roadway maintenance budgets, much less any infrastructure expansion, replacement or improvement.
Naturally, that reality doesn't slow down our pave-and-pollute friends. Three of the most often cited possibilities for the future of U.S. roads involve the construction of toll facilities alongside existing highways, separate roadways for automobiles and trucks, and intelligent transportation systems, allowing driverless vehicular control.
All of these proposals are being marketed under the umbrella of "safety."
They also will require major infusions of public cash - and do absolutely nothing to address the energy, environmental and congestion issues mentioned previously.
Ah; but, that's reality and, to the ideologue, reality only serves to get in the way. You see...

5. Generally speaking, the world as presented by the professional politicians does not exist.
Paul Ryan's convention speech notwithstanding, the G.O.P. does not possess a monopoly on this malady. Few elected officials allow truth to get in the way of a good yarn. [We'll get to Barack Obama's convention speech in just a moment.] There are many examples where significant divergence persists between a political party's platform and what the facts indicate or common sense demands.
The Republican Party's stated belief that a free marketplace in transportation literally exists or that Amtrak would be healthier if its access to the U.S. treasury was cut off is the stuff of dreams.
Why constantly attack Amtrak for its need of operating subsidy, yet give users of taxpayer-owned-and-operated infrastructure a pass? Pouring money into other modes while not requiring fair compensation will never lead to lower taxes or a shrinking bureaucracy. It'll only create (and sustain) the critical imbalance from which we now suffer.
Is it really that difficult to make fair comparisons or at least attempt to understand the complexity of these issues? Perhaps some of the players have vested interests. Maybe others just know our railroads would likely win a fair fight.
President Obama had a chance to illuminate one of the substantial differences between himself and Romney as he delivered his own acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Unfortunately, it seems as though passenger train service (of any sort) has slipped off centre stage.
As he asked for citizens to "rally around" his goals for a second term, Obama specifically mentioned "manufacturing, energy, education, national security, and the deficit." At least the manufacturing, energy and national security goals might have been tied to some sort of railroad transportation imperative. Sadly, it was not to be.
No, Obama was too busy reminding us how our "dying auto industry" is now "back on top of the world." He was anxious to declare his plan to "use the money we're no longer spending on war to pay down our debt and put more people back to work rebuilding roads and bridges and schools and runways."
Out of fairness, I left in the phrase about paying down debt. What I can't figure is how schools became part of that list.
Of course, I should also mention the way this champion of roads, bridges and the motor vehicles which use them accused Republicans of doing nothing while companies release "toxic pollution into the air your children breathe" because that's "just the price of progress" - even though, statistically, the greatest source of petroleum-based air pollution (both gaseous and particulate) is transportation and the biggest chunk of that comes from automobiles and commercial trucks.
If I had but one wish for November of 2016, it would be for someone to have a serious chance of winning the Presidency who really gets it!
In the meantime, I'm glad to see a few politically oriented pieces out there. It never hurts to study the issues and go beyond a candidate's sound bites and photo ops.
Larry Kaufman deserves kudos for saying what needed to be said - and doing so with candor. William Vantuono and the Railway Age magazine deserve our sincere appreciation for their willingness to publish his work.
  • Garl:  My sincere appreciation for your kind words.  You and I both know you went further than I did, and the only reason I didn't was simply the word-count limitation that publishers impose on the deathless prose of their writers.  For the record, I wouldn't change a word of my Railway Age blog and even if you were the only reader who understood and appreciated my effort, I consider to have been successful.  Again, many thanks.

  • When I began writing this entry, I struggled with the leading quotation.

    Barnard Mannes Baruch served as its point of origin, so he ultimately received the nod.

    Even so, I really like the way another statesman revised it - making the aphorism more uniform in construction and, in my opinion, poetic.

    "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts."

    Daniel Patrick Moynihan

  • I am familiar with the Moynihan version, and happily admit to having cribbed it on numerous occasions.  If you're going to steal, steal from the very best.  That last sentence might be a cleaned up version of the Willy Sutton response to "Why did you rob the bank, Willy?

  • Good to see your views once again, Garl and, as usual, I agree wholeheartedly with you and Larry. I just returned from an Amtrak trip: Syracuse/Chicago/Denver,( quickie Denver/San Francisco), Denver/Chicago/Syracuse with all trains on time or early, reasonable food & great sleeping along with astonishing landscapes.  We in the US have magnificent resources for efficient, comfortable alternative travel and most of it is not being tapped because we do not have a rational national surface transportation plan.  Someone I spoke with on the trip mentioned that 75% of the US adult population do not own cars & yet virtually all pay taxes. This presents a wonderful "no taxation without representation" argument when it comes to the massive subsidy provided to highways without proportionate subsidy for passenger & freight rail. I always appreciate Larry's reality therapy words which caution me to not get carried away with unbounded enthusiasm, but, I am hopeful that the GOP has finally reached a point of absurdity and we will see a resurgence of good, honest differences in points of view being rationally discussed in a civil manner. Only then can a rational national transportation plan be even possible.  Thank you both.