I was recently invited to play in
a fantasy basketball game organized by Amtrak. What made it a
fantasy was that it took place at Madison Square Garden and
invitees formed two teams -- Amtrak White and Amtrak Blue --
coached, respectively, by former New York Knicks stars Earl Monroe
and John Starks.
It would have been
fantasy enough to survive a 40-minute, full-court game with my
12-year-old daughter and her friends at her middle-school gym --
with baskets lowered. But I accepted the invitation.
I admit that I am
not a big fan of sports-business analogies, but when the Amtrak
fantasy game was over, I found myself thinking about parallels
between the play on the court and Amtraks current funding
Actually, not just
Amtraks current funding woes, but its chronic funding
In the 35-odd years
of Amtraks existence, there has been a persistent fantasy on the
part of Congress that, with the structure that Congress created,
the railroad could fulfill its service mandate and be
But rather than
deal with the flaws in the structure, some members of Congress
would rather stand up and bash Amtrak as an inefficient bureaucracy
thats unable to turn a buck.
The bashing takes a
lot less work than fixing the problems, and has the added benefit
of playing well in certain circles.
The reality is that
Amtraks congressional mandate concurrently demands profitability
and guarantees it will forever need subsidization. It cant
Alan Boyd, the
nations first Secretary of Transportation, served as president of
Amtrak from 1978 to 1982. During that tenure, he told Travel Weekly
that, in order to get the political support it needed to be
created, Amtrak had to establish itself as a national
passenger-railroad system. In other words, it had to make an
attempt to connect the dots across 3.5 million square
To accomplish this
Congressional mandate, Amtrak must, to this day, maintain thousands
of miles of routes that can never be made profitable.
There are, of
course, some regions in the country where train travel makes a lot
of sense: the East Coast corridor, the Texas Triangle, a San
Diego-Seattle run, a limited Chicago-Midwest network.
If these were the
only routes where Amtrak had to operate, I have little doubt it
could become the well-run, profitable corporation that Congress
wants it to be.
But it would
literally require an act of Congress to change the current mandate
that requires it to serve the entire country, and instead allow
Amtrak to create a system of high-volume, high-yield, regional
has dragged its heels on restructuring Amtrak, the administration
is trying to force the issue by refusing further subsidy for the
existing system, a move that now threatens sensible, profitable
Fantasy sports can
be a lot of fun. Fantasy business goals only lead to frustration