2017 Might Be a Terrible Year for That Iconic Rail Journey You Were Planning

Budget cuts are set to kill off some of Amtrak's best routes

April 6, 2017 9:00 am

There is a category of Americana that, prior to now, one might have thought inviolate, safe from abuse by any politician. You might have put the national parks in that category. You might have put food for elders in that category. And you might have our national rail carrier’s long-distance routes — romantic, whimsical, more a luxury item than a necessity, but still one that spoke, with reverence, about this country’s physical majesty — in that category. 

Of course, none of these programs have fared particularly well over the past two months. If the budget proposed by the White House becomes law, the Department of Transporation’s own budget will be cut by 13 percent. Let us speak to the last item on the list above: Amtrak’s long-distance trains — with evocatively named routes like the Crescent, California and the Empire Builder — will likely be cut. Most of the communities served by these trains are in the Midwest; many have no other local rail service. Money that would have subsidized service there will instead be used to upgrade operations on the profit-turning Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington D.C.

To say it again, clearly: some Midwesterners will lose the entirety of their rail service, while the Northeast gets a faster commute into New York City. Sure, that work could have been done and paid for by the mid-Atlantic states — just ask New Jersey’s soon-to-be ex-governor, Chris Christie, who punted on billions of dollars of infrastructure repairs. Thank you, North Dakota, from the state of New Jersey. We’re sure you can drive wherever you need to go. 

More Americans use NEC service than that provided by the long-distance routes, which “lost money.” To leave the argument there, though, denies the primary function of government: it is not to make money off the backs of its workers. It is to support the ambitions of its citizens. Perhaps we don’t need government-subsidized rail service, like we apparently don’t need government-subsidized public broadcasting, television for children, meals for the elderly, or any of the services that render us less like barbarians waging individual wars for survival than a society working together for common goals. If you want to go fast, go alone seems to be the new era’s mantra.

These cuts to Amtrak are just a too-fitting metaphor for the fact that we no longer seem to want to go far if it means going together. 


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