Amtrak: Not a Model Railroad

The ghost of Amtrak, it seems, can never be fully exorcised. That shadowy remnant of America’s transportation past and the collectivist schemes of the 60s and 70s should have been dead and buried by now, but it is being boosted once again by Congressional pork barrel specialists who claim it’s the royal road to help relieve congestion and ensure energy security.

Amtrak has stumbled along for almost 40 years, and outside a few corridors that can sustain heavy traffic and can make a contribution to energy security, it only exists as a wispy network of long distance trains that serve no other purpose than to suck the taxpayer dry.
This year, with the high price of energy, the pork-barrelers are out with demands for substantial increases in funding. Both Houses have authorized large increases for Fiscal Year ‘09, and it’s looking as if even the normally more skeptical appropriations committees may be prepared to offer Amtrak substantial gains over the current fiscal year. Unfortunately, it’s business as usual with the wasteful, irrelevant national passenger railroad, as Congress is once again missing the opportunity to ensure that Amtrak focuses on routes that make a real contribution to a national transportation and energy strategy.

No train in the Amtrak system supports itself, even those in the corridors — the Northeast Corridor, and a few other lines in Florida, the Midwest and the West Coast — that are truly useful. Those are the trains that — at least arguably — should be funded by taxpayers and run by Amtrak or some private entity.

The long distance trains that continue to consume approximately a fourth to a third of Amtrak’s budget are no more than land cruise ships serving a few vacation travelers — or those who can’t or won’t take a plane and disdain the bus — and exist only to gain the support of Members of Congress who represent areas outside the corridors.

Amtrak is the perfect client for the earmarxists. The most extensive rail network in the world, one that reaches into every state except Alaska and Hawaii, and almost every congressional district in the U.S., offers an irresistible temptation to our elected representatives who look enviously at efficient, fast, frequent high speed rail in Europe and Japan and can’t resist a photo op announcing rail service down at Porkopolis depot.

But the U.S. is not Europe or Japan. There are only a few short corridors where fast, frequent trains can get American business travelers out of cars and off planes. The U.S. does not have the population density. Outside of the Northeast Corridor, and unlike in Europe and Japan, only a few city pairs in the U.S. are close enough to allow the necessary speed and convenience. If a train trip takes more than three or four hours, five at most, rail travel will always be the loser.

At best, beyond the Northeastern U.S., corridors might include Seattle to Portland, Los Angeles to San Diego, Dallas to Houston and on to San Antonio or Austin, a few routes out of Chicago, and trains through Florida from Miami to Jacksonville. And perhaps a few others.

But because of Congressional log-rolling, Members won’t support the corridors unless the long distance trains roll through their states and districts. And thus the spectacle of slow cross-country trains that should have been allowed to die when Amtrak took over from the freight railroads in 1971 but continue to roll at the cost of vast subsidies with little or no public benefit. No Amtrak train — not a single one — comes close to recovering its costs through tickets, so subsidies — and the increases the train buffs on Capitol Hill are demanding — may only be justified on those routes where the trains take substantial numbers of travelers off the roads and out of the skies.

Train travel in the U.S. as a serious intercity transportation alternative is a thing of the past. Even if passengers would abandon cars or planes for trips longer than five hours, the passenger train infrastructure built up in the railroads’ first 100 years is gone. Even one train a day on many routes is helping to tie up critical freight traffic, and obtaining new rights of way in the Litigious States of America is nearly impossible; equipping and running it inordinately expensive.

Even in the Northeast Corridor just about every realistic improvement in train speed has already been realized: absent the expenditure of many billions, the just-short-of-three hours New York to D.C. and just-over-three hours New York to Boston are the effective limit on those routes.

Finally, Amtrak is burdened by contracts with some of our most rapacious unions. The feather-bedding that required firemen on diesel engines into the 1970s is gone, and most on-board personnel work hard. But the operating personnel like engineers and conductors are overpaid, and craft specialization still exercises a tyranny of expense and inconvenience.
For that and other reasons, Amtrak as an entity should probably be reorganized or disbanded, with the few sensible routes operated by a subsidized private sector carrier. But Congress can’t seem to help itself.

All aboard, then, for large increases in pork barrel spending under the cover of relieving congestion and cutting our dependence on fossil fuels — bad enough as the usual waste of the taxpayer’s money but perhaps even worse as another imagined solution that hides a lack of real progress on transportation issues and what should be treated as a national emergency in energy security.