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Opinion

Government-run railroads like Metro-North, D.C. Metro take taxpayers for a ride

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Opinion,Transportation,Travel,Op-Eds,Government Regulation,Railroads

There’s nothing funny about getting hit by a train. But it can be funny to watch a man almost get hit by a train. Especially if he’s in the station specifically to complain about railroad safety, but he doesn’t have the common sense to stand back from the tracks.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., went to New Haven on April 18 to complain about safety lapses on the Metro-North Railroad. “The pertinence and practical importance of these defects is staggeringly clear,” Blumenthal announced in a news release. “Lack of proper safety training and procedures also contributed to the senseless, tragic death of a Metro-North worker Robert Luden in West Haven. Simply put, these safety failings have had tragic and catastrophic consequences.”

Blumenthal’s proposed solution seems simple: Better regulation. “What is frankly incomprehensible and unacceptable is the Federal Railroad Administration’s inexplicable failure to do its job and demand changes and improvements as these defects and fines mounted,” he said.

But the explanation is actually quite comprehensible. Metro-North is a government-operated railroad. As Chris Powell, managing editor of the Manchester Journal Inquirer, writes, “Connecticut imposed Metro-North on itself 45 years ago when the New Haven Railroad and its brief successor, the Penn Central, failed and New York state took over commuter service through its Metropolitan Transit Authority.”

Because there’s no market competition, the railroad has few incentives to improve. It is overseen by government bureaucrats, as Blumenthal noted. And these regulators can, and do, issue fines. But since the railroad loses money anyway, those fines are really just a transfer of wealth from a state government agency to a federal one. That doesn’t seem likely to change behavior.

If he wanted to complain about a poorly-run railroad, Blumenthal didn’t need to go all the way to Connecticut. He could have hopped on the Metro just outside his Capitol Hill office.

Like Metro-North, Metro is a government-run railroad. It requires infusions of cash from states and the federal government to keep running. But it doesn't run especially well. Metro has inspired Web sites such as UnsuckDCMetro, where frequent riders complain about poor service. It suffers frequent delays on its busiest lines, and it's actually dangerous in some cases.

In June 2009, a Metro train plowed into another one at an outdoor station on the system's Red Line. The driver and eight passengers were killed. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (again, one government segment investigating another) showed that Metro's train control system didn't work. The NTSB's proposed solution will sound familiar: greater federal regulation.

Of course, the fact that Metro doesn’t work well and loses money hasn’t kept it from growing.

It's working on a massive expansion that would eventually take trains all the way to suburban Dulles Airport. “The $5.6 billion extension to the Metro system already is seven months late and $150 million over its targeted cost,” the Washington Post reported on April 16.

It's still not clear when it will open. And when it does, it will merely add to an already clogged system. The proposed Silver Line is set to run its trains through the same overcrowded river tunnel that's already used by two other lines.

About half of the cost of the new Metro line is funded by tolls on the nearby Dulles toll road. So drivers are ponying up for a rail line they’re not riding. By the way, that toll road provides a perfect example of how the government is poor at customer service, but great at persecution.

Last year, a colleague pulled up to a toll booth late one evening, holding a $20 bill. But there was no attendant. The next morning, the toll road authority let him know it had video of him skipping out on the toll he’d been willing, but not able, to pay.

Lesson: The government can’t compel its employees to show up for work, but it’s willing to fine you for failing to pay those employees. Luckily, he ended up simply paying the toll.

Some make the case that only governments can operate big projects, such as multi-state railroads or toll roads. The problem is that governments often operate such projects poorly and at a financial loss.

The big, expensive projects could often be replaced with smaller, privately-operated ones such as buses instead of trains. They'd still be subject to government regulation (as everything seems to be these days) but would also be responsive to markets. It's a win-win. And might even keep U.S. senators safe.

Rich Tucker is a senior writer in The Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics.

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