Secretary Pete’s Robust Defense Of Long-Distance Trains
July 29, 2021
Challenged on "unprofitable" Amtrak routes, DOT Secretary Buttigieg puts on a master class in how to defend passenger rail investments on their own merits.
By Jim Mathews / President & CEO
Last December we publicly expressed our strong support for the incoming Biden team’s intention to nominate former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor and presidential candidate “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg as Transportation Secretary. This morning we got proof positive that our optimism about “Secretary Pete” was not misplaced, as he offered a full-throated and unapologetic defense on a nationally popular podcast of investments in the Northeast Corridor and on the long-distance services.
“Stay Tuned” podcast host Preet Bharara, a published author, law professor and former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, interviewed Secretary Buttigieg on this morning’s podcast and during the discussion about the Senate's bipartisan infrastructure framework waxed enthusiastically about the possibility of big investments in passenger rail...so long as they were focused on Amtrak’s Acela.
When Bharara fell back on the common trope that long-distance routes are “unprofitable,” the Secretary jumped in quickly to push back, putting on a master class in how to defend investments in public benefits ON THEIR OWN MERITS.
“Sometimes people throw out this idea that, you know, they’re anti-trains because trains don't make a profit. Well, the whole reason we have a Federal policy around them is that they're not there to make profit, they’re there to make sure the economy as a whole is stronger,” Buttigieg says.
He goes on to point out “That's why we do anything, right? If something could be efficiently, fairly and profitably delivered by a business, you wouldn't need government assistance, you wouldn’t need Congress, you wouldn’t need a big bill to make it happen.”
You can read the exchange for yourselves below...or, better yet, go listen to the whole podcast.
But here we have the sitting DOT Secretary making a strong, vocal case for Northeast Corridor AND long-distance investments. Importantly, he doesn't just find ways to excuse the financial performance of long-distance trains...or rely on smoke-and-mirrors assertions to imply that maybe, someday, they'll make a profit, so we just keep on putting in the money because someday it will make money.
Nope. He just defends the continuing investment as necessary for economic prosperity, rail as an economic engine and a benefit worthy of investment all on its own.
Period. Done. Boom.
Here’s the whole exchange, which starts at 22 minutes and 56 seconds into the show:
>> PREET: Great, so let's talk about some of those things that you expect to be in the bipartisan final bill. I presume that there's hundreds of billions of dollars that's going into this, among other things, the Acela train from Amtrak that I take from time to time will be two times faster, before long. True or False?
SECRETARY PETE (laughing): It doesn't work quite that way, although...
PREET (chuckling): WHY NOT?!?
SECRETARY PETE: No one would like that more than me, but...
PREET: We looked it up, my team looked it up! The Acela train reaches a maximum speed of 82 mph; the Japanese bullet train? 177 mph. So...we're not putting any dollars into making our trains faster?
SECRETARY PETE: No, we are. It's just not gonna come overnight and it's not gonna be as dramatic as that. But, no, it’s unquestionably gonna give us a stronger train network on the Northeast Corridor. AND, importantly, this is not just about the Northeast Corridor. So, uh, you know across the country there are a lot of communities – including the Midwest where I come from, the South, places like Texas – a lot of places who would benefit from more frequent, more reliable train service and movement toward true high-speed rail. I mean...
PREET (interrupting): Yeah, but those routes are just not profitable so they need government subsidy? Is that fair?
SECRETARY PETE: Yeah, they're not supposed to be, right? Sometimes people throw out this idea that, you know, they’re anti-trains because trains don't make a profit. Well, the whole reason we have a Federal policy around them is that they're not there to make profit, they’re there to make sure the economy as a whole is stronger. I mean you could say the same thing about driving, right? You know, roads typically – with a few exceptions in terms of certain kind of privately managed toll roads – roads generally don't make profit. You collect taxes and then you spend them to create these roadways that make an economy possible. It’s similar with rail.
So that's why we need to make choices about, as a country, about supporting them, to unlock the greater economic value and potential that they create for the economy as a whole. That's, that's why we do anything, right? If something could be efficiently, fairly and profitably delivered by a business, you wouldn't need government assistance, you wouldn’t need Congress, you wouldn’t need a big bill to make it happen. That's why, you know, in so many other areas of the economy all we need to do is, kind of, set some basic safety regulatory boundaries and let the market do its thing. With infrastructure, with big, critical infrastructure it's not that simple. You can't make profit for any one player unless you have a system, that a country, uh, has decided to do.
Another way to put it is that, you know, it is countries – not companies – that build national networks. And then individual companies operate on them, through them, and create jobs. That's how the public/private handshake is supposed to work. <<
Bravo, Secretary Pete!
"Saving the Pennsylvanian (New York-Pittsburgh train) was a local effort but it was tremendously useful to have a national organization [NARP] to call upon for information and support. It was the combination of the local and national groups that made this happen."
Michael Alexander, NARP Council Member
April 6, 2013, at the Harrisburg PA membership meeting of NARP