The time has come to end Amtrak’s monopoly on Northeast Corridor

The time has come to deregulate America’s passenger rail system. As high-speed trains around the world speed by, America remains stuck at the station. By focusing on projects that make sense, leveraging private-sector investment, increasing competition and opening the door to public-private partnerships, we can do more with less and finally take our nation in a new direction. It’s time for passenger rail to enjoy the same success deregulation brought the freight rail, commercial truck and airline industries. 

For the past 40 years, Amtrak has failed to invest federal dollars adequately or responsibly, despite being the exclusive intercity operator on one of the most valuable transportation assets in the world, the Northeast Corridor. Additionally, the Obama administration’s high-speed rail program has been flawed from the start. With the governors of Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida rejecting federal rail funds and the California project looking troubled, it is clear the administration’s program of dumping more money into a failed system simply isn’t going to work. 

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Transportation Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and I are preparing to unveil key initiatives that will remove the handcuffs that keep our passenger rail system chained to an inefficient and unproductive model. Several hearings in our committee over the past year have highlighted investors who are interested and ready to finance improvements to passenger rail if the government will get out of the way and allow the private sector to compete.

Any successful businessman knows it is critical to invest in areas where there is the best potential for success. Without question, the Northeast Corridor represents the single best opportunity for true high-speed rail in the United States. The NEC typifies the ideal corridor for high-speed rail and shares many similar attributes with successful existing corridors around the world. Population densities in the NEC region are higher than anywhere else in the nation, higher than nearly anywhere in Europe and similar to some densities in Japan. The poster child for congestion, 70 percent of the nation’s chronically delayed flights originate in the NEC, and the area’s I-95 is one of the most congested interstates in the nation. The NEC is also home to extensive transit and regional rail systems that complement intercity passenger rail traffic along with productive economies and an extensive existing travel market.

To tap the true potential of this valuable asset and unlock significant opportunities for economic development, Chairman Mica and I plan to propose legislation to end Amtrak’s monopoly by separating the NEC from Amtrak, spinning it off as a separate business unit and transferring the title for the NEC to a separate entity. Once free from Amtrak’s control, we will require a competitive bidding process for the NEC that will allow the private sector to invest in the corridor, reducing and potentially eliminating the need for federal subsidies. We will also establish strict performance standards for true high-speed rail with a requirement for service in less than 2 hours between Washington, D.C., and New York City. Finally, our plan will set firm deadlines for action that will move America forward and finally get us to stop sitting on one of our most valuable federal assets.

In addition to the Northeast Corridor, Chairman Mica and I are also exploring opportunities to bring competition to other important intercity lines like the state supported routes funded jointly by states and Amtrak. These lines are one of the only areas where we have experienced growth in passenger ridership in recent years, yet they continue to lose money. Giving states the opportunity to hold competitive procurements for the operations and services on these lines will provide for greater control and increased accountability, and will drive down costs to taxpayers. Operated more effectively, these lines hold tremendous opportunities for generating revenue and increasing service for riders.

Congress must look for more cost-effective and innovative approaches to providing modern and efficient passenger rail service. I look forward to applying market forces and competition to revolutionize a flawed approach that has proven to be a black hole for federal dollars and a stalled job creator. Done right, what has in the past been a liability can in the future become an asset generating American jobs, economic development and value for hardworking taxpayers.

Shuster is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and is chairman of the subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.