By tomorrow, Americans may have to hit the highway, board a bus, or settle on to a plane if they plan to take an intercity trip. Actually, that's what 997 out of 1,000 Americans already do. For them, the demise of Amtrak, our national passenger rail service, will take only a psychic toll: the knowledge that another government enterprise failed miserably.
But for those other three citizens–who are concentrated in the D.C.-New York power corridor–Amtrak's shut down is a real loss. And, thanks to a cause-as-much-pain as possible strategy by Amtrak's new head, David Gunn, the shutdown may well strand thousands of other rail commuters, as Amtrak clogs up New York's Pennsylvania station with idled trains and shuts down tracks that are also used by regional commuter railroads.
With nothing left to mortgage, and no more credit lines to draw down, Gunn threatens a complete shutdown of the system unless Congress, the president, or a big-hearted philanthropist comes up with $200 million immediately. In threatening to halt large segments of the East Coast rail network, Gunn shows that he's better at playing politics than at running a railroad. Instead of shutting down long-distance routes that lose hundreds of dollars per passenger and building up lines that people actually use, he's going to the brink with what's known as the Washington Monument strategy.
Congress and the president should call his bluff. Sunk costs are sunk, and the fact that we've wasted $25 billion on Amtrak since its creation three decades ago is no reason to keep sending it billions more. The railroad should be thrown into bankruptcy, where a federal judge and trustees could ensure that the routes people actually use stay open while the railroad sells off its assets to organizations and companies that may actually be able to run a business. Gunn is a declared foe of such privatization and shutting down any long-distance routes. He's ridiculed the notion that anyone would be willing to buy Amtrak's assets. Yet there are plenty of companies willing to attempt to succeed were Amtrak consistently fails. Politicians in Washington ought to give them a chance.