If you want to play with trains, pick a cheaper way than Amtrak

COMMENTARY Budget and Spending

If you want to play with trains, pick a cheaper way than Amtrak

Apr 8th, 2006 4 min read

Visiting Fellow in Welfare Policy

My first reaction to Colin Peppard's plea for Amtrak ["The A Train: Amtrak Survives on Life Support," Viewpoints, March 26] was to wonder why an East Coast author writing in an East Coast newspaper about a rail system whose service disproportionately serves the East Coast begins his article quoting an anonymous official living in the Midwest? But as I read further, a likely explanation emerged: That's how far Colin had to travel to find somebody whose views on transportation were as insensible as his.

We don't know much about the credentials of this Michigan "official"--he may be the mayor of Ypsilanti or a policeman who gave Colin directions to the Detroit zoo--but we do know from his quote that knowledge of Amtrak is not one of his core skills. "If we had more trains, we'd put more people on 'em," the official says, but that statement can't be reckoned with Amtrak's acknowledgement that not more than a half of 1 percent of America's inter-city passengers use the system, and that during 2005, Amtrak's trains were less than half-full on any given day.

Colin follows this odd quote by noting that Amtrak's ridership is at a record level, but in a growing economy almost every measure of activity is at a "record high." The minimum wage is at a record high, and so is the price of a movie ticket, corporate profits, the U.S. population, the deer population, Lipitor sales, and ownership of iPods, to name just some of the records broken in 2005. In actual fact, however, Amtrak in 2005 saw just a 1.9 percent increase in ridership while domestic airline passenger volume grew by 3.9 percent.

Colin's article was twinned with an echo from Christopher Ott ["Europe understands: Reliable rail matters"], described as a writer who has traveled by rail in other countries, an approbation yours truly has earned by virtue of his 19-hour train ride from Sofia to Istanbul. Colin/Chris use much of their allotted ink attacking President Bush's efforts to squeeze the waste out of the system, but for what purpose? Amtrak acknowledges it loses $100 million a year selling food and drink--but the Colin/Chris team offers no solution beyond more money for a system few use.

Just the facts
Before we walk through some of the Colin/Chris allegations, we should begin with a few facts Amtrak has been kind enough to provide. According to Amtrak, passenger revenues fell slightly during 2005 while employee wages increased--marking the second year in a row that wage and salary costs exceeded ticket sales. As a result, Amtrak's loss totaled $1.2 billion last year, in large part because it incurs operating costs of two dollars for every dollar it earns in ticket sales.

Notwithstanding these subsidies, Colin/Chris contend that Amtrak is underfunded by government, compared to, say, highways and aviation. But government data show that this statement just isn't true. Let's take Chris Ott's assertion that "it's ironic that Amtrak is under constant pressure to turn a profit when its competitors are not." Well Chris, the highway program is expected to make a profit, and each year it does! Funded by a fuel tax on gasoline, the highway trust fund devotes only 60 percent or less of the revenue it raises to general roads, while the rest goes to urban mass transit (20 percent to 25 percent) and other diversions--including a shrinking number of commuter rail systems paying Amtrak to run their trains under contract.

Likewise the Federal Aviation Administration's trust fund finances the air traffic control system, provides grants to small airports, and oversees safety and inspections--and does this largely with revenues raised by 11 separate federal taxes levied on passengers, planes, and airlines. Although these taxes were expected to cover all of FAA's costs--and did so prior to Sept. 11--the decline in air passengers after the attack led to losses as user fees fell.

In December 2004, the U.S. Department of Transportation published a report titled "Federal Subsidies to Passenger Transportation" providing an estimate of annual subsidies to (or profits from) different transportation modes from 1990 to 2002. According to the report, in 2002 a motorist returned a dollar to the government for every 1,000 miles driven, while buses returned $1.79 per 1,000 miles, thereby yielding the federal government a very tidy profit after taxes. Aviation passengers received a subsidy of $6.18 per 1,000 passenger miles, but this subsidy reflects reduced flights in response to Sept. 11. Prior to 2001, commercial aviation earned a profit for the government.

In contrast to the profit performance from roads and (sometimes) air, Amtrak does vastly worse: It recorded a per-passenger (per 1,000) mile subsidy of $210.31. But 2002 was not its worst year: in 1998 that subsidy reached a staggering $383.82. Ouch!

Chris also claims that Amtrak is the fuel efficiency winner, but this statement is just as delusional as his claims regarding subsidies. A 1999 Library of Congress study found that on trips longer than 75 miles cars were more fuel efficient than Amtrak, and that buses did best. So if you're headed to Philadelphia or New York, and want to strike a blow for energy independence or clean air, drive your car. A 2002 update of that study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory found that in measures of fuel efficiency, cars had pulled further away from Amtrak and that commercial aviation now exceeds it. According to that study, and measuring energy use by the international standard of "British thermal units," automobiles required 3,581 Btu per passenger mile, commercial airlines needed 3,703, while Amtrak gobbled up 4,830, the worst of all.

Chris wraps up his paean to Amtrak with a quick survey of Europe, Asia, and Canada that was no more accurate than his fabricated cost and fuel efficiency assertions. In point of fact, huge financial losses forced Britain, Japan, and Germany to abandon their socialist-style Amtrak systems beginning in the mid 1980s and adopt the kind of private sector partnerships that President Bush is urging on Amtrak. And as for his inexplicable tribute to Canada's passenger rail system (called VIA), let the record show that the Canadian national government reduced its subsidy to VIA by 37 percent over the past three years--a cut greater than that proposed by Bush.

So where does this leave us? Having dealt with the likes of Colin and Chris these many years, I feel the pain of their loss, sympathize with their shattered hopes and aspirations, and am, magnanimously, prepared to meet them halfway. Therefore, I will endorse modest federal support for the creation of a new national park called Train World where, in a safe and controlled setting, middle-age white guys can periodically experience the tingling thrill of steam whistles and the clickity-clack of big metal wheels rolling along ribbons of steel. You go, guy!

Ronald Utt of Falmouth is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in Fredericksburg.com