House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) has finally come out explicitly in favor of privatizing the Northeast Corridor and letting private consortia bid for high-speed rail construction. Mica’s rationale is that Amtrak is an inefficient government provider, and its proposal for spending $117 billion over 30 years to build high-speed rail in the Northeast is deficient.
Not mentioned anywhere in the article is the FRA, which is the real obstacle to modern rail operations. Mica has to my knowledge said nothing about the FRA, which is too bad, since it could feed into the Republican narrative of bad government and the need for privatization and deregulation.
Under present FRA regulations, not much more than NEC service levels can be done: rolling stock would have to meet guidelines developed for the steam era, curve speeds would be limited, and the signaling would not provide enough capacity for adequate service levels on shared track. This is independent of the incompetence of every FRA-compliant railroad; in fact part of the incompetence is manifested in unwillingness to try to get waivers, even though Caltrain, a small operator, applied for a partial waiver and got it.
On the other hand, under modern regulations, even Amtrak could provide somewhat better results, and an Amtrak that Mica and the Obama administration pressured to reform could provide much better results. Although such reforms would include less staffing per amount of service provided, ridership could increase so much that total employment would increase, making this at least in principle fathomable by the bureaucrats. If top management wants to make it happen, it will happen.
In contrast, no reform of the FRA is possible short of a complete overhaul. The appropriate passenger rail regulation in the US is that everything that’s legal in Japan or Europe is legal in the US, and the only local task should be a skeletal staff reconciling European and Japanese rules where necessary. A piecemeal approach leads to partial and suboptimal reforms, requiring additional testing of already extensively used trains. For example, in Europe, tilting trains can have up to
315 270-300 (corrected, see dejv’s comment below) mm of cant deficiency, but the FRA won’t permit more than 229 (9″).
JNR’s problems in the 1980s involved overstaffing and operation of marginal lines; these are the things privatization could fix. This is not true of bad regulations, which remain no matter what. Private vendors could lobby for a fix, but they have other interests in mind than maximum efficiency – for example, making life harder for competitors – and besides, what’s the point of hoping for private lobbyists to do a task that as chair of the relevant committee you can do yourself? At the end, a government that’s too incompetent to do things by itself is probably too incompetent to be trusted to ensure the private sector will provide better service rather than looting the taxpayer.