Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Amtrak - 43 years in a row losing money

Since we're on a roll lately with transportation here in Hillsborough County, seems like a good time to continue  on Amtrak.  After all, its come up lately at The Eye, in our response recently about the need for more national rail plans.  After 43 years of Amtrak, and we don't have a plan?  But I digress.

Robert Samuelson at the Washington Post has the goods on Amtrak.
There is something about Amtrak — perhaps the romance of railroads or the promise of relieving traffic congestion and economizing on oil and greenhouse-gas emissions — that causes otherwise sensible people to lose contact with reality. The reality is that Amtrak has been a waste of taxpayer money since its creation in 1970. It doesn’t significantly reduce congestion, fuel use or greenhouse gases. Amtrak is too small to have any appreciable effect in any of these areas. Yet it retains an aura of respectability with much of the public and many “experts,” who believe it should survive and, perhaps, expand.
... dissect that historic ridership of 31 million. The number looks impressive, but on any given day, it’s about 85,000. Not much. Even if it doubled, it wouldn’t be much. Domestic airline passengers total about 650 million annually; that’s 1.8 million a day. More important are the 140 million Americans who commute daily to work, about 85 percent of whom drive. And then there’s personal, vacation and pleasure driving.
If Amtrak vanished, hardly anyone would notice except Amtrak’s workers and its small number of daily riders.
The U.S. taxpayers continue to subsidize Amtrak to the tune of about $1.5 billion per year.  In the grand scheme of the budget shenanigans, that's chump change.  But we have tremendous difficulty getting rid of it.  Why?  Politics.  Amtrak is a favorite of certain politicians.  But clearly not not a favorite in the transportation market with the possible exception of the DC - NY - Boston corridor, and even that is in question with their murky accounting of "operating costs" that never fly in the private sector.
But the federal government should leave the train business. And it is a business, not a public service, because private markets already provide what Amtrak is selling. Almost anyone riding Amtrak can find other ways to travel (car, plane, bus). The fact that a program so weak has so many defenders is yet more evidence why our budget debates are stuck.
So true. 

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