Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Boozman and me on Amtrak, Part 2

Here, as promised, is the second installment of my somewhat lengthy conversation with Congressman John Boozman. Scroll down for the first part. It is well worth your time.

The interesting, and unfortunate, part of this segment is that he believes the big lie that David Stockman was telling back in 1980. Amtrak trains do not, generally speaking, run anywhere near empty. My next assignment will be to gather some numbers on load factors. I think it is reasonable to say that the only way to increase Amtrak ridership is to create more seats for Amtrak passengers.

Boozman uses the word “efficient” with such ease and so frequently, that I wonder what he means. I am honestly wondering in what way Amtrak should be more efficient. This is not to say that it cannot do better, but how is it to be measured. And what about the Amtrak Review Commission, which I mentioned in the first part of this conversation. What ever happened to that? Republican opponents to Amtrak act as it the rail passenger corporation had not already been politically micromanaged to death. This proposed GAO study is completely useless. There have been all sorts of politically inspired boards and inquires. Amtrak changes top management about as much as the Little Rock School District. Might I be bold enough to sincerely suggest that one thing that might help Amtrak is to leave it alone for a couple of years. Over the past three presidents, Amtrak has been through wild swings in corporate vision.

Please notice how easily Boozman says that schedules could be changed. Now, I happen to be somebody that is not against some well conceived tinkering, but the current timetables are, so far as I know, soaked in the blood of weary negotiators. Amtrak has certainly not imposed timetalves on the “host” freight railroads.

My favorite part of this is how John Boozman seems to think that Amtrak out in Arkansas resembles the high speed, mostly on-time, Acela world of the northeast corridor.

He seems not to understand that supporting Amtrak is not necessarily about getting people out of automobiles. It is about having a choice for intermediate length trips.

Anyway, here is part two..

BOOZMAN: We’re getting ourselves in a situation. I’ve been all over the country looking at this. Many parts of the country, you just can’t build any more roads. There’s just no more (inaudible)

LYNCH: Which is a decent excuse for making some accommodation for passenger rail.

BOOZMAN: I agree. Mr. Oberstar, one of the first things he did, was go to France and look at high-speed rail I was on part of that trip.

LYNCH: But’ we’ve already spent. There won’t be any

BOOZMAN: I think that would be a great thing to look at.

LYNCH: Very easy to say politically ‘cause you know that it’s impossible.

BOOZMAN: I really don’t. I think. I think right now, Pat, it is impossible because we have been blessed. It has been impossible because Americans, wherever they live, and I drive into Washington every morning and I look around, my wife drives me in and lets me out, and I look around and there is one person in the car. It’s just the way it is. We’re a nation that loves their cars. The only thing we’ve found that really keeps people from driving as much is parking. If you don’t have any parking, they’re not gonna’ do it. That seems to be the limiting factor. And that’s really true when you go to Europe where gas is twice as much as here. Now, you can affect people’s behavior and they will go to smaller cars, and they will go go cars that get more miles per gallon, but it’s just hard to get them out of their automobiles. But like I said, don’t misunderstand. I’m not opposed to passenger at all, but what it needs more than anything is somehow for us to figure out how to get more people on there riding.

LYNCH: Well, you can’t put people in seats that don’t exist.

BOOZMAN: Well, I think you’ll find and I’ll be glad to look at the statistics. You know when you start, and I priced it, on several occasions around here, going to different cities, traveling by rail is expensive..

LYNCH: I agree.

BOOZMAN: It’s not a bargain.

LYNCH: That’s correct. How do you put people in seats that do not exist?

BOOZMAN: I’ve never had any trouble as far as getting a seat on a train.

LYNCH: Well, where have you tried to get a seat on a train?

BOOZMAN: From here to New York.

(I had some difficulty hearing the above response)

LYNCH: From Little Rock to New York?

BOOZMAN: No, from Washington.

LYNCH: Of course, they have 30 departures a day. In Little Rock, we have one north, one south.

BOOZMAN: And it’s full?

LYNCH: Well, that’s a tricky question. If someone, for example, reserves a seat from Springfield, Illinois to San Antonio that seat is full to San Antonio, but if that car goes on to Los Angeles, that seat is available at San Antonio, but may be booked by somebody who buys it in El Paso. So, from San Antonio to El Paso that seat may be empty. There are some vagaries in it, but I think you would find the load capacity on Amtrak trains is fairly good. The idea that people don’t ride the train is just wrong. And God knows they do everything they can to make it inconvenient . The trains are out there in a freight railroad gridlock that we both recognize is a near catastrophe. I think ..

BOOZMAN: And again, I’ll be glad to help with the .. but I really think pretty close to them, I really get along fine with the Amtrak people. I talk to them periodically , because I am on the committee, and try to move things along, but I think I’ve got a good relationship, but they have not, in the meetings I’ve had, those. That’s not something they’ve mentioned to me. But, again, I guess what I’m saying, Pat, and I just want you to know, that it is something that really does all work together, and I’m really not a guy that .. I believe very strongly in getting people off the roads and getting them into mass transit. We really are working to do that, but I do think it’s OK to have this efficient system if you can.

You know, you’re right, in the sense that we don’t want to do anything that makes the Amtrak train any less efficient than it is. Just the opposite, so I would not be in favor of anything, as far as that. But I’m just talking about looking at schedules . If the train could run at, instead of 7 o’clock, run it at 6:45 or 5 after. What I’m saying, just things along that line. And then the other thing is look at making sure, if you’ve got somebody with authority to clean the system out, making sure that the commercial traffic, you know the pressures they’ve got, that they’re not unduly causing problems.

But I know we’ve got a lot of people now that, and don’t get me wrong this is not a response to that at all but, I hear all these problems of Amtrak, the shippers, I get a little frustrated because one of the most important things are our rivers. If we can shift more traffic on to our barges. One of the things I've worked really hard on is trying to get the Arkansas River from an 8 foot channel down to 12 feet. 80% of it is 12 foot now, In fact, even more than that now because they’ve worked on it. But in doing that you can load a barge up 40% more and it just sinks a little bit lower in the water. Those are the things that really are important. So, it’s just a matter of trying to get it all done.

I just didn’t want you to misunderstand. I appreciate you. I appreciate your columns. I’m not being critical at all. I just wanted to tell you my side of what we are trying to get done.

I really am, especially with the Arkansas transit system, and I think you’re alluding to this Pat, in the sense that, in Arkansas, with ridership on buses, that transit system, and probably train traffic too, you have a group of people, that’s the only form of transportation they can take. And if that single mom can’t get to work, or the elderly person, if the bus won’t come pick her up, we’re talking about institutionalizing her. And that’s going to cost society a lot more money than a transit authority subsidy.

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