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"New Departures: Rethinking Rail Passenger Policy in the Twenty-First Century" asserts that the US and Canadian goverments need to assert what they want their passenger rail systems to do. Thee book suggests partnerships between government and private industry. Review by Owen Hardy.

"Bestandsaufnahme Deutsche Bahn. Das Abenteuer einer Privatisierung" covers events up untill 1998 and details how and why Germany decided it could no longer mix politics with business.

"Derailed: What Went Wrong and What to Do About America's Passenger Trains" is about antiquated, absurd laws, and a deeply jealous Amtrak which stifles innovative non-Amtrak initiatives. No government is determined enough to break this fortress of mediocrity.

New Departures

New Departures: Rethinking Rail Passenger Policy in the Twenty-First Century.
By Dr Anthony Perl. University Press of Kentucky. Review by Owen Hardy

book coverAmtrak and VIA Rail Canada were doomed from birth, Dr. Perl says. They've been mandated by government to both provide a nationwide passenger train system and make money. As former Amtrak President George Warrington said earlier this year, shortly before jumping ship to head New Jersey Transit, it simply can't be done. In fact, no passenger transportation system - on land, sea or in the air - makes money. In N. America, the other modes have simply done a better job at securing and jealously guarding their funding sources.

Once and for all, Dr. Perl says, the national governments of the U.S. and Canada must decide what they want their passenger rail systems to do and then discover a permanent source of funding to pay for the level of service they mandate.

Throughout all the battles over the years regarding Amtrak, politicians, the public and pundits alike have "ignored the 800-pound gorilla in the room," Dr. Perl says, "a national transportation policy that [has] no place for intercity passenger trains except as an object of (limited) public charity."

The Harvard-educated Perl, associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary, is no lightweight. He's a regular speaker at international passenger rail seminars around the world and was a Chateaubriand Scholar at the University of Lyon in 1994.

"New Departures" is a comprehensive history of N. American passenger railroading since the advent of Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada, with an extended trip overseas to investigate just how the Japanese, French, Germans and British have revitalized their passenger rail systems. In the end, Dr. Perl outlines four possible scenarios for a "New Model Railroad" for N. America. They range from major partnerships between government and private industry - ideally, between the federal and/or state governments and the major freight railroads - operating a national, high-speed network to private ventures involving lucrative but limited niche markets.

Since the start, Amtrak has limped along from budget to budget, forever outside the loop of national transportation policy. Amtrak President Graham Claytor brought credibility to the corporation, plus a commitment: "if Amtrak was provided with adequate and assured capital investments" and relieved of other obligations, it would be self-sufficient by 2000.

But the assured funding never came, self-sufficiency proved elusive, and Amtrak continued to limp. High-speed rail proponents attempted to bypass the federal government with a number of regional initiatives, from the "Texas TGV," shot down by Southwest Airlines, to the Ohio High Speed Rail initiative, rode out on a rail by Ohio voters in a sales-tax referendum.

So here we are, more than 30 years following Amtrak's creation, with the basic questions still unanswered by politicians too distracted, politically cowed and lacking in vision to provide answers: what is the role of passenger trains in the U.S. and Canada, and how should we pay for them?

With "New Departures," Dr. Perl has done us an invaluable service. It only remains for our leaders - and the traveling public - to profit from its wisdom. They must screw up their courage and tackle the problem with foresight and resolve.

The result most likely will not be Amtrak as we know it. But it will be a true, 21st-century passenger railway system, one inextricably woven into the fabric of this continent's overall transportation network.

Anthony Perl is associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary in Canada. He is currently a visiting scholar at the City University of New York's Institute for Urban Systems.

This review was written and kindly made available to Erik's Rail News by Owen Hardy. Mr Hardy is president of The Society of International Railway Travelers, a travel company, and a founding member of the Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation in Louisville, KY, USA.

Some books I haven't read but which look interesting:

"The Economics of Railroad Safety" by Ian Savage tackles the issue of how much effort should be spent on safety. It also discusses market failures, and what to do about them.

"Grand Trunk Corporation: Canadian National Railways in the United States, 1971-1992" by Donovan L. Hofsommer; 230 pages. Offers insight into deregulation, free trade, repositioning of basic industry, etc. logo

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