Kurt McKee

lessons learned in production


Hey there! This article was written in 2006.

It might not have aged well for any number of reasons, so keep that in mind when reading (or clicking outgoing links!).

The death of Amtrak

Posted 11 December 2006

Less than an hour into my 22 hour train ride to Dallas, TX, the train was 45 minutes behind schedule. I arrived at my destination a full two hours late. Why?

I made a dinner reservation for 7:15p on Saturday, and sat with Ron, Cord, and Flora. Flora was an elderly woman from Philadelphia who had been a teacher for 32 years. Cord was a sophomore at the University of Chicago. Ron was headed south to visit his father, and was taking the train because he loves railroads and fears that passenger trains will soon disappear from the United States. It was Ron that filled us in on some of the history and problems with Amtrak.

Passenger train services reached their highest numbers in the 1940s, when the government took control of the infrastructure in order to facilitate an unprecedented surge in passengers - we needed to move our troops across the country during the war, and the 500 trains on the tracks each day needed to increase to about 1500 trains! After the war, the government handed control back to Amtrak.

Unfortunately, when the war ended our troops came back and experienced an economic boom, and many of them bought brand new cars. This hurt Amtrak's business, but the real problems began when airplanes became cheap enough to transport America's businessmen and women. When that happened, Amtrak started losing money.

To this day, Amtrak has been operating at a loss. The government has never allowed Amtrak to shut down its unprofitable lines, so Amtrak has hobbled along with government subsidies. Further, Amtrak doesn't own any of the tracks that it operates on. Meanwhile, the track owners (such as Union Pacific) control all of the infrastructure and have lucrative deals with, say, UPS. These deals basically say "For every ten minutes our train is late, Union Pacific owes UPS $10,000." Therefore, Amtrak trains are halted at least once an hour in order to let freight trains pass by unhindered. As an example, our train was scheduled to stop in Arkansas at 4:00a, but we didn't arrive until 6:00a.

Oh yes, and the trains have fallen into disrepair because there just isn't any money available.

So there you have it. The government won't allow Amtrak to operate as a profitable business, our taxes are being doled out to support an unprofitable system, and passengers are inconvenienced beyond what is reasonable. It's a disappointing situation all around.