WASHINGTON - Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who has been making waves of late blasting Amtrak, was in the Great North last week touting the virtues of the Alaska Railroad.
"The Alaska Railroad," Mineta said in a speech at the snappy depot at Anchorage airport, "has developed an innovative service that has made it the only passenger railroad in the nation that doesn't require operating subsidies."
But Amtrak, he said, was a "disservice to riders and to taxpayers nationwide" that every year just "gets in line for another subsidy."
It was Ronald Reagan's Welfare Queen meets the Iron Rail.
"Operating" is the operative word. The boutique Alaska Railroad, all 600 miles of it, does indeed get subsidies - more than $100 million in the past five years and more than $372 million since 1996. It is just that the money is for infrastructure, not for operations.
Amtrak - which, unlike Alaska Railroad, carries only passengers, not more lucrative freight - gets a whopping $1.2 billion in subsidies, a Transportation Department spokesman said Friday. Much of that goes for operating expenses.
Of course, the chronically ailing Amtrak travels over 22,000 miles of track in 46 states, with 300 passenger trains a day carrying about 25 million passengers a year. That's slightly larger than the half-million who ride the Alaska Railroad, and two-thirds of them, Anchorage Daily News columnist Beth Bragg wrote, "rode on cruise (ship) company rail cars."
Bragg bashed Mineta for using the Anchorage depot - built with $28 million in federal dollars - as a backdrop. The "airport-to-Seward train schedule is set by the cruise industry," she noted, and the train makes three round trips a week during the 16-week summer season. Then it is basically empty for eight months a year.
The Anchorage depot was picked "as a convenient meeting place" during Mineta's trip to Alaska, spokesman Robert Johnson said. And despite the substantial differences, "what the Alaska railroad shows is one model for how a reformed system with federal money can meet intercity passenger needs in a state or region."
Maybe next time Mineta could stand in front of a picture of a deserted Midwest depot?