But we can learn some lessons from the U.K.

Iain — What the U.K. is doing with that rolling stock is obviously bizarre. But, as bad as it is, I’m not totally turned off by the U.K.’s rail privatization efforts. Since privatization, service has improved markedly, the trains are nicer, and ridership has risen faster than population growth. But, for some reasons you understand better than I do, infrastructure privatization in the form of Railtrack Group didn’t work in the U.K. Maybe Labour did it in on purpose. I don’t really understand. But, whatever the case, it can’t happen here.

Although Amtrak still owns much of the Northeast Corridor between New York and D.C., virtually all other rail infrastructure in the U.S. is already in private hands. But we do need to do what the U.K. has done pretty well: create openings for private rail service operating companies. Right now, Amtrak is both the only inter-city rail provider in the United States AND the only competitive commuter train operating company. In the main, it’s also the only entity that bids on train maintenance contracts. When local governments want to contract out rail service they can only turn to Amtrak. It runs Maryland’s MARC, Virginia’s VRE, The Coaster trains in San Diego and a half dozen other local commuter railroads.

At it’s best, Amtrak can provide decent service. But it needs competition. Rather than micromanaging Amtrak–Congress recently ordered it to stop using china in dinning cars—the government should work to contract out some of Amtrak’s operations to private companies.

In the short term, this would likely require some continued subsidies and maybe even bond issues to fund much needed capital improvements. In the long term, however, I think that the U.K.’s privatization efforts do give us something from which we can learn.