All aboard! Time to abolish Amtrak

Published on Sunday, 1 December 2013 22:04 - Written by

The millions of Americans who will travel later this month, hoping to get home for Christmas, will more likely to their cars and to the skies to get home than to the rails. “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is a movie, not a meaningful evaluation of our nation’s transportation system for people.

In fact, more and more voices are calling for Amtrak’s closure — or at least its radical reform. The Daily Beast, the news organization that was once Newsweek magazine, is jumping on the bandwagon.

“Amtrak Is a Tax-Sucking Behemoth That Deserves to Die,” a new article says.

“Amtrak’s been running red ink since its founding in 1971, and tales of its financial imprudence are nothing new,” writer Jim Epstein explains. “But the 2008 law that authorizes it to operate is set to expire, so Congress is once again mulling what to do with this rolling money-gusher.”

Left-leaning groups such as the Brookings Institute acknowledge there are problems, but they say the law should be “tweaked” to improve service and efficiency.

“By glossing over facts, the Brookings report obscures the real story. In the past five years, Amtrak has grown increasingly reliant on public subsidies at all levels of government,” Epstein says. “Between 2007 and 2011, it received a record $8.4 billion in federal funding — a 50 percent increase over the prior five-year period. States have now become major contributors to Amtrak’s bottom line, kicking in an additional $842 million over the same timeframe. Amtrak’s ridership gains in the past few years are a nearly undetectable blip when placed in the context of the larger U.S. transportation network.”

People simply don’t think of taking the train — mostly because it’s not very convenient, it’s not much cheaper, and it’s not even environmentally smart.

“The average American logs about 15,000 miles per year by car, 1,800 miles by plane, and only 20 miles on an Amtrak train of any sort. Amtrak accounts for about 0.36 percent of total intercity passenger travel in the U.S.,” Epstein says. “For the small number of people too scared to board an airplane and incapable of driving, the rapidly growing intercity bus industry offers a cheaper, unsubsidized and more environmentally friendly alternative.”

It’s not merely cost and convenience that have doomed Amtrak; it’s also culture. The passenger line can’t even make money on overpriced food, with a captive customer base.

“Last week, the inspector general revealed at a congressional hearing that Amtrak lost $609 million on its meal services over the past six years, citing all kinds of eye-popping details about giveaways to staff, spoiled food and service workers earning about four times the standard industry wage,” Epstein notes. “But the food service fiasco is just the tip of the iceberg. Amtrak has a chaotic management culture, routinely misappropriates funding, and is hamstrung by insane union work rules.”

Perhaps Amtrak can be salvaged, but Epstein doubts that.

A better course of action would be to dismantle the behemoth and let private carriers bid for the transportation routes that actually make sense (mostly in the Northeast).