Off the rails again: trainsplaining the value of rural Amtrak service to useless eaters inside the Beltway

The language that I used to bitchslap CNN over its stupid coverage of the Frankford Junction derailment a few months ago is 100% recyclable for addressing an older beef that I’ve been nursing, with very good cause, over the contempt that certain equally stupid mandarins in the Mid-Atlantic feel for federally subsidized train service to backwards-ass parts of the country whose sheer productivity allows them to eat three square meals a day while living in a reclaimed patch of near-profitless Tidewater swamp on the Potomac. Outfits including Reason and the Brookings Institution occasionally carp about how Amtrak’s long-distance services are exceptionally unprofitable and should therefore be scrapped in order to refocus the money saved on relatively profitable regional services between a handful of major cities. These proposals would retain rump networks in place around New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, while leaving the rest of the country to its own devices. The bottom line would look better that way, they figure.

I admittedly have a dog in this fight as a fairly frequent customer on the Coast Starlight, which, I should make perfectly clear, is one bitchin’ ride. So, however, do a hell of a lot of other people who live, work, or have loved ones in the middle of nowhere. One of Amtrak’s great virtues, which I think I’ve mentioned before, is that it’ll get your white ass back to Holdrege in excellent style, although maybe a few hours late, if Amtrak’s majorly fucking sweet live train-tracking maps are to be believed. A lot of other out-of-the-way places, too: there isn’t much doing around Klamath Falls or Saratoga Springs, either, for that matter. These places are inherently remote, so the services available will almost certainly be inferior to what can be found in large cities. If any country partisan blowhards are hanging around here wondering why cities exist, that’s why, among other reasons. If any metrosexual numbnuts are asking equally snotty and impertinent questions about the raison d’être of flyover country, I’ll say this: wheat. I’m not entirely sure of this, and I’m damn well not looking it up, but I figure there’s a bit of it growing around Holdrege. Probably some corn, too, the quicker and more thoroughly to deplete the Oglallah Aquifer; just sayin’. I might as well also just say, though, that a cow can eat feed corn, and a person can eat beef, but man cannot live on the Brookings Institution alone. Or corn, for that matter: hard-knocks crackers are always trying that and coming to grief from pellagra for their efforts.

That’s the thing. The cities and the countryside complement one another. The provinces offer the cities raw products that the cities cannot provide themselves, and the cities offer the provinces finished products and services that the provinces cannot provide themselves. I know, Wow Very Explain. The appalling thing is that this actually does have to be explained, probably in much greater detail than I’m inclined to repeat right now, to the sorry excuses for leadership that prevail in the United States today.

Here’s another thing that has to be explained for shills and fools who fundamentally do not understand how economies actually work in practice, as opposed to how they theoretically work on balance sheets. The profitability of Amtrak’s major regional services is largely a function of the obscene amount of financial wealth that has congealed among a fairly small number of people around a handful of major American cities. The congealing of this wealth is not a function of the absolute, objective productivity of those possessing it so much as their proximity to or direct leverage of the mechanisms of rent-seeking. The Clinton machine sucks surplus wealth as much from the Port of Newark and the shores of the Gowanus Canal as it does from the depopulated high plains of Nicodemus. Some of this wealth comes from people who can afford to spare it, and some of it doesn’t. Sux to be poor, I guess. That’s certainly the moral that much of Bougie has drawn from this story over the past two generations.

The crucial thing to keep in mind here is that the financial balance of trade between Nicodemus and Chappaqua, or between Holdrege and Chappaqua, is NOT the same as the actual balance of trade. You may have noticed, too, that the fundamental dispute here is not between Whitey and the Community. I don’t know a whole lot about the High Plains, but I know a hell of a lot more than Hillary does. Can you imagine her condescending to pick blueberries on payroll? An important cultural learning of Goodland for make benefit glorious witch lair of Chappaqua is Wow Much Wheat. The grain elevators aren’t decorative, you know.

Somebody has to tend this infrastructure and the fields surrounding them, or there won’t be anything to eat from them. Once again, Wow Very Explain. And, once again, this basic shit has to be explained to people with master’s and law degrees. Any society that can waste $400k per student purporting to educate such people can afford daily service on the California Zephyr and borrow some Union Pacific crews to restore the Desert Wind within a month.

That’s the other thing: passenger rail service shouldn’t be an either-or bum fight between Las Vegas and Flagstaff over whose Congressman has more juice. That’s just bullshit. The current Amtrak system is good but far from comprehensive. It offers no rail service at all to Las Vegas, Nashville, Columbus, or Des Moines, and only twice- or thrice-weekly service to Houston, El Paso, and Cincinnati. Why? Who the fuck knows. It’s ridiculously arbitrary.

Meanwhile, Congress has fights over a studiously cultivated scarcity mentality affecting its ability to appropriate a couple billion dollars a year to operate a national passenger rail system for a country of over three hundred million, as if this is a ruinous expenditure and blowing up the CIA’s latest rogue assets in Raqqa is not. This only looks insane; it’s mainly just fucking crooked. With the amount of thievery and violence the US government has been orchestrating, you’d think someone could have sent O. J. Simpson to mug Fat Leonard and turn over, say, 90% of the proceeds as seed capital to extend the Heartland Flyer to Houston. Of course, that’s a level of public-spirited magnanimity and restrained violence beyond the capacity of the federal government these days. Give me back my fucking stuff has nothing on immolating Anwar al-Awlaki and countless dozens of random wedding guests using remote-controlled aircraft.

Some of the same concern trolls who bitch about rural service on Amtrak also complain about essential air service. EAS is more of a white elephant than Amtrak will ever be. It’s less reliable and more expensive to passengers and the federal treasury alike. Amtrak’s rural fares are impressively competitive. It should come as no surprise that Amtrak loses more money charging $45 for passage from Klamath Falls to Sacramento than it does charging $150 from Philadelphia to New York. The difference, of course, is that Philadelphians and New Yorkers have more options than anyone living forty miles from Grand Island. Subsidized air service to Grand Island may be expensive, but it can be useful. No one should be tactfully silent while some of the most useless assholes on the East Coast complain about La Guardia in one breath and insist that their fellow citizens equidistant to MSP, Denver, and Kansas City be left to the mercies of a mythical free market in air travel in the next.

These asshole city slickers have lately come to be smeared as Acela Corridor elites. This, too, is a dirty trick. The Last Psychiatrist often says that if you’re reading it, it’s for you. In the case of the Acela, if you’ve heard of it, it’s for you. There are plenty of train buffs living in the middle of damn nowhere who have heard of the Acela and would love to ride on it if they get back east. Some of them wouldn’t mind having Acela or something like it in their corner of the Amtrak system. No one who takes Superliners to visit friends or relatives two states away considers it scandalous that a much more heavily populated part of the country has high-speed electrified rail service. Most of this smearing of Acela as a plaything for out-of-touch big-city elites comes from think-tank types living within commuting distance of Washington Union Station. By definition, anyone complaining about Acela elites is an Acela elite.

Yes, go ahead and take the Washington Metro to your job bitching about the wastefulness of the LA Metro for the Reason Foundation. Do tell Mr. Wonka about the virtues of car culture as expressed by rush hour on the 405. Tell him about how everyday people in deep red Klamath County just fucking hate Amtrak.



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