Transportation Is a Utility: Thoughts on Airplanes and Trains (Part 2)

One of the advantages Amtrak has over domestic airlines is that passengers are treated with a lot more dignity. There is no TSA – all you have to do to board an Amtrak train is show a photo I.D. and a ticket (and conductors don’t always check photo I.D.). Baggage policy is more flexible (which, do be fair, is partially due to technological differences). While different conductors are stricter than others, they generally try to help passengers have a good experience.

Furthermore, while Amtrak employees have complaints about their work (like most workers), the general impression I’ve gotten from my conversations with Amtrak crews is that they believe they have decent jobs, and a quick internet search indicates that most Amtrak crew members are paid a living wage (unlike many airline crew members). While I have encountered Amtrak crew members of all races, a disproportionate number of them seem to be African-American. That might be partially because working on trains has historically be culturally coded as a ‘black’ job, but it may also reflect that the federal government, as an employer, tends to discriminate less on the basis of race than private employers.

Amtrak is owned by the government. It is essentially a government-owned utility with the purpose of serving the people, not making money.

The Trump administration’s attempt to cut down Amtrak is not a new trend. Some Republicans in Congress have been trying to attack Amtrak for a long time, saying that it ought to pay for itself through passenger fares. However, this reflects the views of only certain types of Republicans and other right-wingers – there is another set of right-wingers who support Amtrak.

I remember one time, when I was on an Amtrak train (one of the train lines which might be eliminated under Trump’s budget proposal), I was talking to a libertarian who told me that government is too big and ought to shrink down. I pointed out to him that he was riding Amtrak, which receives government subsidies. His response was that Amtrak was useful, unlike some other government activities, and that highways and airports are also subsidized by the government, so he couldn’t avoid using a mode of transit which is subsidized by the government. The thing was, he lived in a rural area. I suspect that, if he were a Silicon Valley libertarian rather than a rural libertarian, he would be in favor of cutting Amtrak’s subsidies.

Generally, I have found that rural people – regardless of their political affiliation – like passenger train service, and are opposed to cutting Amtrak. When riding on Amtrak, I have found that a lot of passengers live in rural areas. This is partially because a) many rural areas are not served by an airport and b) even if there is an airport, travel by train is sometimes significantly cheaper. For example, I learned that travelling between Arizona and Texas – especially if one buys tickets at the last minute – is much cheaper by train than by airplane. Now, maybe if the airline industry were not an oligopoly without sufficient public control, the airfare between Arizona and Texas would be more price competitive with train tickets. But that is how things are now.

Speaking of price, cutting Amtrak subsidies is a class issue, not just a rural issue. Aside from Amtrak crew jobs being better than airline crew jobs, people who ride Amtrak – especially the train lines which Trump’s budget might cut – tend to be poorer than airline passengers. Also, it is a disability issue, since some people, for medical reasons, cannot travel by airplane.

Anyway, back to the rural issue. Yes, it is true that some major metropolitan areas might also lose all passenger train service under the proposed budget. I find it particularly shocking that New Orleans might be completely cut out, since New Orleans is currently one of the major passenger train hubs. On the other hand, New Orleans does have a couple of airports as well as Greyhound and Megabus, so losing Amtrak would not be as devastating to NOLA as would be to a rural town.

Oh, and Greyhound? I’ve heard that their prices went way up after they bought Trailways, their main competitor. They also eliminated a lot of routes. This is another great example of how reducing competition increases prices and reduces service. Usually, travel by Amtrak is cheaper than Greyhound, though Greyhound is sometimes faster and usually has better wifi than Amtrak. If Amtrak gets seriously cut back, I predict Greyhound will become even more expensive, and their service might get crappier. MegaBus pretty much only serves major metropolitan areas because that is the most profitable market for long-distance buses.

As it so happens, last week (assuming everything went according to plan – I scheduled this post to go online about two weeks after I wrote it) I went from San Francisco to San Diego by train. Guess what? Neither of the train lines I used (the San Joaquin and the Pacific Surfliner) are directly threatened by Trump’s budget. In fact, I think the proposed cuts to Amtrak, if they come to pass, would barely affect the San Francisco Bay Area. We would still have the Amtrak lines which are not affected by the cuts, as well as Greyhound, Megabus, Caltrain, the airports, etc. The attitude of most San Franciscans towards Amtrak is that it’s nice, and they do not want to cut its subsidies, but they do not consider it particularly important.

Let’s compare that to Dunsmuir, California.

Dunsmuir is in Siskiyou County, which consistently leans Republican. Amtrak has tried to end passenger service to Dunsmuir before, but the people of Dunsmuir insisted on keeping passenger service, and eventually the City of Dunsmuir made a deal with Amtrak. Dunsmuir does not have an airport with scheduled flights, nor does it have Greyhound (and the nearest airport with scheduled flights is only served by two airlines – one of them is United Express). If Dunsmuir were to lose passenger train service, then the only remaining means of long-distance transit would be the interstate highway (technically, it would also still be accessible by freighthopping, which is illegal, and by foot and horse, but that is not enough to keep a town alive in this day and age). Losing Amtrak would be a much bigger deal to Dunsmuir than to San Francisco.

Yes, you guessed it. The proposed budget cuts to Amtrak might end Amtrak service to Dunsmuir, a town which needs it more, not to San Francisco, a city which needs it less.

Of course, though losing Amtrak would be bad for Dunsmuir economy (and Dunsmuir’s economy isn’t doing so great in the first place), the people of Dunsmuir also have cultural reasons for keeping Amtrak. Dunsmuir was founded as a railroad town, and Southern Pacific is still one of the biggest employers in town. Trains are a key part of their heritage. To them, losing passenger train service would be like San Francisco losing its cable cars. And yes, the city government tried to eliminate San Francisco’s cable cars in the 1940s and 1950s, and it took citizen activism to keep the cable cars running, just as Dunsmuir had to make a fuss in order to keep Amtrak. San Francisco cable cars have much less utility than Amtrak trains, and also require subsidies from local taxpayers to keep running, yet shutting down cable cars would be as unpopular today as it was in the 1940s/1950s because San Franciscans recognize their cultural value (and their tourist-economy value, which is derived from their cultural value).

By the way, one of the conservative/right-wing arguments for subsidizing Amtrak is that Amtrak is preserving a piece of the United States’ cultural heritage.

Though I have not done the research to confirm this, based on what I’ve read, it seems that Republicans from rural areas tend to like Amtrak and favor having Amtrak serve their communities. For example, Doug LaMalfa, the Republican who represents Dunsmuir in Congress, has voted in favor of Amtrak subsidies (he is opposed to California’s high speed rail program, but that might be because HSR, unlike Amtrak, would not serve his district). I recall reading years ago that Republicans in southern Mississippi also tend to be pro-Amtrak, and a quick internet search yielded this article (which is obviously out-of-date, but also supports my hunch than rural Republicans tend to support Amtrak). IIRC, the article I read years back quoted a Mississippi politician as saying something like “the Yankees are trying to take away our trains”.

It seems to me that Republicans who most aggressively Amtrak are from affluent-to-rich suburban or urban areas, or are just plain wealthy (Trump obviously belongs to this group).

Likewise, the politicians – both Republican and Democrat – who most favor ‘deregulation’ of the airline industry and allowing high market concentration by ignoring anti-trust laws are so wealthy that they can afford to travel by private jet, or rely on campaign contributions from people who are wealthy enough to travel by private jet.

I hope that the Democrats and rural Republicans can work together to prevent these cuts to Amtrak’s budget. Even though some Amtrak lines are not directly threatened by the budget cut, the way it works is that because Amtrak currently serves so many rural areas, there are a lot of representatives in Congress who have a stake in sustaining Amtrak service in their district. If a bunch of congressional districts lose Amtrak, then there will a bunch of members of Congress who will have much incentive to, say, vote to increase funding to the Northeast Corridor.

Yes, the national network train lines operate at a net loss, but they increase revenue on other lines thorugh connecting passengers. For example, a national network train (the Coast Starlight) might bring a passenger from Portland to Sacramento, and then they will take the San Joaquin to Fresno. Without the Coast Starlight, they probably would not choose to use the train, and thus the San Joaquin misses a potential passenger.

And we get back to national cohesion. You either have the principle that one tries to serve as much of the nation as feasible because this nation is for everybody, or you’re only going to serve the people it’s ‘profitable’ to serve, which in the case of Amtrak would mean that people in the Northeastern United States would have Amtrak service and nobody else (not even California).

And transportation supports national cohesion in another way. You probably think that there is some region of the United States where a lot of people have very messed-up ideas. If so, and you want people in that region to have less messed-up ideas, you want the United States to have a good transportation network. The better (by ‘better’ I mean affordable and convenient) the transportation network, the more people in that region will travel, the more they travel, the more ideas they will be exposed to, and the more ideas they are exposed to, the more likely they will replace some of their very messed up ideas with less messed-up ideas. Though all forms of transportation support the flow of ideas, I think that trains, because they foster more social interaction between strangers than other forms of long-distance transit (except certain types of boats), serve this purpose particularly well.

So to wrap this all up – transportation, like water and electricity, needs to be treated as a utility. This is necessary to ensure fair treatment of passengers – both in terms of price and dignity. When transportation is offered by private companies, it needs to be regulated by the public. It’s also sometimes a good idea for transportation to be delivered by a government-owned utility, like Amtrak. Sometimes, offering transportation to some places requires operating subsidies, but the benefits to society as a whole can justify the cost of those subsidies.

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Transportation Is a Utility: Thoughts on Airplanes and Trains (Part 1)

Note: This post is scheduled to go online a little less than a week after I wrote this, while I do not have access to the internet. It might already be out of date by the time it is posted, and due to lack of internet access, I may be slow to moderate/respond to comments.

***

I’m guessing that just about everyone who is reading this post knows that, on April 9, 2017, United Airlines (or more specifically, United Express) called in Chicago Aviation security officers to forcibly remove a passenger who was already boarded and seated and posed no threat to anybody, and those officers broke the passenger’s nose, gave him a concussion, and caused him to lose two teeth. This has sparked a lot of discussion, including (but not only) the fact that the airline industry in the United States is an oligopoly, and that this situation (the broader situation, not just oligopoly) exists partially because the government chose to hand over airline regulation away from democratic systems and towards airline managers.

Though it was published before April 9, this article explains how enforcing anti-monopoly/oligopoly laws is necessary to preserve/expand civil liberties. That article focuses on African-Americans, but I think its points can be applied more broadly, and I think the United Airlines incident is an example of the link between concentrated market power and violation of civil liberties.

Meanwhile, another piece of news which has gotten far less attention (for obvious reasons) is the Trump administration’s proposal to cut all funding of Amtrak’s national network trains. You know those trains which I rode last year? Those routes might be eliminated if the budget passes in its current form.

The common thread in these two news stories is that they are about how transportation policy in the United States has been moving towards giving the private sector, as opposed to public sector, more control over transportation, and that this is bad for societal cohesion. In other words, the United States is moving away from treating transportation as a utility.

Let’s go back to airlines. It has been more than ten years since I was ever on a domestic flight in the United States, and most of my experience with U.S. domestic flights was with an airline which no longer exists (TWA). Thus, I do not have personal experience with current conditions on domestic U.S. flights. However, I do have recent experience (within the last five years) with domestic flights in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, and I can tell you that they have much better customer service than what people describe with domestic airlines in the United States at much lower prices. Now, some of that is because people are going to talk more about their horrible experiences with airlines than their boring experiences with airlines. However, it does seem to me that Americans are dissatisfied with airline service in the U.S. in a way that most East Asians are not dissatisfied with their domestic airlines. Furthermore, the domestic airlines in those countries either have government price controls (Taiwan) or are much more competitive than the regional air markets of equivalent size in the United States (Japan and South Korea).

Some of you are probably thinking ‘Domestic flights in Taiwan / Japan / South Korea? That’s ridiculous! Those countries are so small!’ Well, it’s not ridiculous because Taiwan and Japan are island countries, and South Korea has an entire province (Jeju) which is not on the Korean peninsula, just as the United States has an entire state (Hawaii) which is not part of the North American landmass.

Since I know most about Taiwan, I will focus on the airline industry there. Most domestic flights in Taiwan connect the main island to the outer islands. There is also ferry service to the outer islands (except Kinmen), but since air travel has some advantages over sea travel, having both air and sea connections means better transportation than having only sea connections. Since some islands are only served by a single airline and can only sustain a limited number of flights (for example, Qimei, an island with about 3,700 inhabitants, has only two flights per day), market competition clearly cannot keep airfares reasonable. Thus, the government imposes price controls. And when the airfares go up, the islanders make a big stink about it, and it is reported in the news.

Obviously, Taiwan’s regulation of domestic air travel has big problems because this happened (note: I once took a TransAsia flight from Taipei to Kinmen – if the timing had been different, I could have been on that flight). However, Taiwan’s approach – treating airlines as a utility – is the approach which best serves its interests. When I interacted with airlines in Asia, I generally felt I received good customer service. For example, I once got a refund for my ticket with very little fuss for a flight where I was a no show (I did not cancel – I was a no show). That airline had a monopoly for that particular route, so the most plausible reason why they gave me a refund so easily is that they were legally required to do so.

Now, one may ask ‘who cares if the outer islands, which have a total population of less than 300,000 people, have good, affordable transportation?’ First of all, good transportation is critical to maintaining the economies of the outer islands, but that is arguably not important to the 23 million people who live on the main island (the total population of all of the outer island is less than 300,000). The most obvious benefit to the people on the main island is military security – in every single instance in history when there was warfare between China and Taiwan, it started in the outer islands because they are the buffer zone. It is in Taiwan’s interests to keep the loyalty of the people in the outer islands, and for the outer islands to have sufficient resources to support Taiwan’s military (which is heavily concentrated in the outer islands).

But beyond the question of how helping the outer islanders benefits the main islanders, there is the basic principle that they are all part of same society, and that it is the duty of a society to take care of its own people.

Here one might say ‘yeah, that’s Taiwan’s situation, how is that relevant to anywhere else.’ True, people in New York City do not depend on upstate New York to serve as a buffer against military invasion (though I suppose that, if there were any serious threat of Canada invading the United States, that could change). However, the point about broader social and national cohesion applies just as much to the United States as to Taiwan. That is the case made by this blog.

One of the issues I’ve seen come up again and again in discussion about United Airlines is that some people cannot avoid using United Airlines if they want to travel to/from certain places by air because United Airlines is the only feasible option. Though I do not know the details, apparently Louisville (the destination of the flight) is one of those places where flight options are limited. Thus, one cannot rely on the power of the market to ensure good service – if the government does not step in, then the managers of the airlines will just do whatever the heck they want, which is probably to make themselves richer at the cost of both passengers and employees (it turns out the employees who were working on that flight are grossly underpaid, which might be related to why they performed so badly – employees who can’t take care of themselves can’t take care of passengers).

I have zero sympathy for United Airlines, and I would not feel sorry at all for them if they go out of business because of this scandal. However, because the airline industry in the United States is an oligopoly which does not have sufficient public control, I do not expect eliminating United Airlines will improve conditions for passengers. On the contrary, I think increasing market concentration might make the surviving companies even less inclined to treat passengers fairly.

Now let’s get back to trains…

(To be continued in Part 2)