The passenger rail monopoly we call Amtrak is really two radically different services: a popular and profitable set of rail lines in the Northeast Corridor between Washington, DC, and Boston, and a sprawling network of mostly little-used and money-losing lines everywhere else. The most profitable part of Amtrak's network is the red routes to the right of this map:
For years, Amtrak has been using profits from these routes to prop up the rest of the system.
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed an Amtrak funding bill, sponsored by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), that aims to put a stop to this practice. Instead, Northeast Corridor profits would be reinvested in Northeastern lines, providing funds for badly needed repairs and upgrades.
This is an overdue reform. For years, liberals and conservatives have argued about whether to continue to subsidize Amtrak's money-losing services, and the House bill provides another $7.2 billion over the next four years. But wherever you come down in that debate (I agree with conservatives who want more money-losing lines shut down), it's foolish to force travelers in the Northeast to pay the bill.
A better approach would be to leave decisions about which routes to subsidize up to states where the routes are located. Shuster's bill takes a step in this direction by giving states more say in the management of local routes. The hope is that states will either help to identify cost-savings, or will come up with additional money to keep routes running.
The legislation must still be approved by the Senate before it can become law.