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Dukakis: Put Rail on Election Track

Former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis is baffled that a missing piece of America's transportation puzzle — passenger rail — isn't on the radar this election year.

Expensive — and imported — oil drains dollars from the homeland. Cars and jets pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. “Every metropolitan area in America is a moving parking lot at 5 o’clock in the afternoon.” Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential candidate turned professor at UCLA and Northeastern, has a solution to all of the above: Take a train. Although he’s been teaching policy, usually on health or transportation, since 1991, his rail bona fides were cemented by serving on the Amtrak board from 1998 until the current Bush administration.

While his insistence on rail might sound quixotic, especially as he spoke by phone from his university office in the middle of car-mad Los Angeles, he grounds his wishes in a politician’s understanding of reality. “There are some limitations on resources,” he said as he downplayed dreams of American bullet trains. “I don’t want to sound silly here.” But at the same time, he sees that the art of the possible can include canvases with rail. Marveling at the 11 transit lines in Tokyo built one atop the other, he remarks, “For us it’s remarkable, but it’s not so remarkable.”

But Amtrak — which last fiscal year hosted a record 25.8 million passengers — is grounded in fights that threaten to throttle it, with partisans suggesting the Bush administration would just as soon kill the agency as save it. For his part, Dukakis supports the so-called Lautenberg-Lott bill, but with double the annual $1.9 billion that legislation seeks for Amtrak and increased passenger rail. (That perennial bill was passed by the Senate in October and is expected to be heard by the House infrastructure committee this session.)

Miller-McCune: I take it you’re still speaking out about high-speed rail and mass transit?

Michael Dukakis: Oh yeah, certainly. I wish I could hear a little something from our presidential candidates on the subject. I don’t know why they’re not (talking about it), and I just don’t understand it. So I’m making some strenuous efforts to see if we can change that.

M-M: Presumably we’ll see some change in that with a new administration. John McCain has shown some interest in the Northeast rail corridor and a few other places …

MD: Not much. He was a tough guy when he was head of the Senate Commerce Committee. Very difficult.

M-M: Presumably a Democratic administration, whether it be an Obama one or a Clinton one, might be more amenable to public transportation.

MD: You might assume that, and I think you can assume it, but I thought for example that my friend (Bill) Clinton was going to be way out front on this. He talked about (public transportation) during the campaign, and it was one of his key, cutting-edge technologies he wanted to get into. And while he was OK and he appointed one of the best boards I’d ever worked with, it was really bipartisan, very good and very collegial; you never could get him out front on this issue. I said, “You ought to be the Dwight Eisenhower of the steel interstate. You ought to make this your signature initiative and do for rail what Eisenhower did for highways.” But we just couldn’t get him to do it.

What troubles me is we’re not hearing anything from either Clinton or Obama, in any detail, on this, and I don’t understand it. I mean, look, if I was so smart I would have gotten myself elected, but congestion is killing the American people. It’s driving them nuts. This is one of those issues where the people are way ahead of the politicians on this thing. And that means a much more robust investment program for metropolitan transit and a first-class national rail passenger system. And we aren’t hearing this from either one of them. The economy is in trouble — this is a great way to get people back to work, to stimulate the economy, to build for the future, all that kind of stuff.

I’m baffled. I couldn’t get Kerry to do it in 2004, and John is a very good rail guy. I’m baffled — I think it’s not only the politically right thing to do; I think it’s very, very popular.

M-M: Long-distance and high-speed rail: Does that have to be a function of government?

MD: Yeah. There isn’t a single system in the world that operates on its own.

M-M: So if it has to be a function of government, does it have to be a function of Amtrak?

MD: My answer is yes. You’ve got to have an entity that runs it. The approach that we’ve taken when it comes to metropolitan transit and public transportation is that you create an agency, a public agency. It varies from state to state … but in every single metropolitan area where we have public transportation, it’s a public entity, and that’s what we’re going to have at the national level.

But it can’t be an entity that is systematically starved of funds. We’re not talking about a huge amount of money here. One week in Iraq committed to national rail would do the job and then some. But you know what we’ve been getting from the current administration. I don’t think George Bush would know a train if it hit him between the eyes. He has no conception of why this is important.

My old friend Norm Mineta — I never could understand what Norm was talking about when he was secretary of transportation: “The model is broken to solve Amtrak.” I don’t know what he was talking about. If you don’t want to call it Amtrak, call it TrakAm; I don’t care. But you’ve got to have an entity, and it’s got to be a public entity. I mean the freights aren’t going to run these things, and to the best of my knowledge there are no private companies that are panting to take on responsibility for the national rail transportation system. You need a national entity to do this. What it needs are excellent leadership, a fine board and sufficient funds somewhere in the $3 billion- to $4 billion-a-year range. … The support of the Congress is quite bipartisan. The Senate just passed the best Amtrak bill we’ve had in history by a vote of 70-22. There aren’t too many 70-22 votes in that Senate!

M-M: How do you overcome the reluctance of Americans to ride the train?

MD: Give them good service, and they’ll come flocking. Out here, for example, everyone talks about California as “They won’t do this; they won’t do that.” (But) the Blue Line from downtown L.A. to Long Beach is the most successful light-rail system in the country — there are more people than on any other light-rail system in the country. The Surfliner, from Los Angeles to San Diego, the state-supported Amtrak train, is the second busiest in the entire Amtrak system. Only the Northeast Corridor is busier. … And this is with 80-mile-per-hour trains — you can imagine what would happen if you gave people something better than that.

M-M: Do we need to have high speed to really capture the public imagination?

MD: Higher speed. We may not need 200-mile-per-hour trains — well, you need that here (California), and you can build that here — but if you could get, for example, Detroit-Chicago or Chicago-St. Louis running at 110 to 115 miles per hour, believe me, that would make a huge difference, and those trains would be packed. People are sick and tired of flying from downtown to downtown. The same is true if you extended the Northeast Corridor, as the Southeastern states want to do, from Washington to Richmond, Richmond to Raleigh, Raleigh to Charlotte, Charlotte to Atlanta. Using existing equipment — and nothing’s particularly unusual about this — you could get those trains up to 115, 120 miles per hour.

And it’s relatively low cost. You’ve already got the rail lines. I mean, you gotta upgrade them, put some new signals on them, get some new equipment. You don’t have to take a single house or a single business. It’s relatively easy. And all of these regions have been screaming for this stuff.

So it doesn’t have to be 200 miles per hour — but that would be nice.

M-M: Is there sufficient right of way for what you envision?

MD: Yes. You use existing right of way, although in most of these cases the right of way will support an additional track or two. And in many cases these old rights of way had those additional tracks, and then the freights kind of pulled them up. So the real estate is there. The existing rights of way, by and large, can accommodate double tracking easily, and that would make a huge difference, because then the freight trains could get out of Amtrak’s way and then the passenger trains could move.

Part of the problem now with long-distance trains, even though they’re hugely popular from April to October, is that they’re always getting behind some freight train that is stuck or isn’t moving or it’s run out of crew time and they’ve got to bring in new crews and stuff in the middle of the day, and that kind of stuff. So being able to separate the passenger and the freight functions in the same right of way would be extremely helpful.

M-M: Do the freight railways despise passenger travel and Amtrak?

MD: I don’t know that they despise it. The law outside of the Northeast Corridor where Amtrak owns this stuff — they’re required to accommodate Amtrak. Well, it doesn’t make freight operations any easier — another argument for double tracking.

What they don’t want is multiple carriers. There was all this talk from this Amtrak Reform Commission or whatever they called themselves to start going out and bidding this stuff so we’d have 17 different carriers. That’s what drives the freights nuts.

M-M: What is the role of state and local government in this?

MD: Strong partnership. Strong partnership, just the way we partner with feds on highways. We ought to have the same sort of funding we have on highways, maybe 80-20, 70-30, whatever you like. We’re spending 39 billion federal dollars a year on highways, (but only) $15 billion on airports and airlines.

M-M: If I were allocating federal transportation dollars, I could answer that that percentage breaks down roughly to the way passenger miles occur nationally.

MD: What we’re assuming, and I think with good reason, is that you’d see a dramatic increase in people riding the trains. That in turn will have a profound effect on congestion on highways and airports, which is horrible — very serious problems (that) aren’t getting any better. In fact, they are getting progressively worse every day. So it’s not just numbers here; it’s a question of how you significantly impact what is massive congestion on highways and serious problems that are getting worse at airports. A third of domestic flights in this country are for 350 miles or less. Think about it: If you get all those people on a train, that would open up an enormous capacity at existing airports.

… Incidentally, I don’t know where the expansion of O’Hare Airport is, I don’t know if it’s going forward or it’s been stopped or what, but that’s a $14 billion expansion plan, while a third of the flights out of O’Hare are for 350 miles or less. For half of that you could build a first-class, 10-state, 110- to 120-mile-per-hour rail passenger system connecting Chicago to each of the main Midwestern cities. You tell me which one you think makes more sense.

M-M: What about the deficits Amtrak runs each year? You’re suggesting the losses are really quite small in the scheme of things.

MD: Recovery at the fare box is really quite high. I think it’s around 60 percent, which is really quite high. And it would be a lot better if speeds and frequencies were increased — no question.

M-M: Is it a policy mistake then to seek self-sufficiency?

MD: There is no self-sufficient national rail system. But then highways aren’t self-sufficient. Airports aren’t self-sufficient. The airlines have never made money — if you look back over the last 50 years I think they have a net deficit of $10 billion or something like that. They don’t make money. And we never talk in terms of highways “making money,” but somehow Amtrak’s different. You’ll have to provide some subsidies, but then in the end, you’re still going to have to provide capital funds, but if you provide sufficient capital funds and dramatically improve service, you’re going to have smaller deficits.