On the wrong track with commercial rail

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Opinion Zone,Christopher Taylor

I love trains.  If I have to go long distance, that's my favorite way to travel, and I've ridden Amtrak's Coast Starlight line many times in the past.  Although the newer passenger cars are less comfortable and roomy than the old ones, I still prefer them over airplane travel.  The problem is, we just can't afford Amtrak any longer as a nation.

Amtrak is a losing proposition, like all rail.  Although a few isolated lines make some money, the whole of Amtrak loses money, and it has ever since it was founded on May 1st, 1971.  Every single year, Amtrak has lost money, and since 2000, it has lost more than a billion dollars, every year.

Mike Opelka quotes a Pew study at The Blaze:

The line with the highest per passenger subsidy—the Sunset Limited, which runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles—carried almost 72,000 passengers last year. The California Zephyr, which runs from Chicago to San Francisco, had the second-highest per passenger subsidy of $193 and carried nearly 353,000 passengers in 2008. Pew’s analysis indicates that the average loss per passenger on all 44 of Amtrak’s lines was $32...

Perhaps in great economic times, Amtrak would be an acceptable expense for America, but when times are tight, that's when people and governments both must find ways to cut costs.

The problem with Amtrak is that while it has its advantages and charms, few consider it a critical piece of American infrastructure. Sure, the train has a certain romantic charm and I like how friendly folks tend to be. You can get up and walk around while traveling, and the food in the dining car is notably better than what you get on an airplane.  The scenery is better, and nobody at the train station is going to grope your little girl in the name of security.

The problem is: trains take a long time getting where they go, and for most people, that's time out of their vacation they'd rather spend at the beach or resort.  Trains are always late, don't go many places people want to go, and tend to have stations in the worst parts of cities.  That's just not a recipe for success.  Even one of Amtrak's founders has figured this out:

The embarrassment of Amtrak has even struck a chord with someone who rallied for its creation. Anthony Haswell, founder of the National Association of Railroad Passengers and a person widely recognized as the inspiration for Amtrak, is not happy with the current state of the railroad’s affairs. Mr. Haswell opines on Amtrak in Red State Uprising: How To Take Back America

"Amtrak is a massive failure because it’s wedded to a failed paradigm. It runs trains that serve political purposes as opposed to being responsive to the marketplace. America needs passenger trains in selected areas, but it doesn‘t need Amtrak’s antiquated route system, poor service and unreasonable operating deficits."

Some argue that worrying about making money is mistaken; that roads and airports don't make money either.  It is true that these other organizations are all net losses, but we're talking apples and oranges here.

Roads and airports are not services, they are structures.  No one expects any structure to make a profit; it's a structure.  No one expects the physical rails of steel and wood stretched across the nation to make money either.  They're a net expense of an enterprise, like personnel or fuel.  The rails cost money just like roads cost money, and they have to be considered an expense.  Even efforts like toll bridges don't make enough money to maintain a bridge.  Tolls are usually intended to help repay the cost of the bridge over time.

However, the businesses which use these structures do make money.  Rail companies do turn a profit on rail by transporting goods.  Trucking companies make money by shipping goods on roads.  Airlines make money by transporting people and goods.  These efforts are all profitable ventures.  Trains (and buses, light rail, etc.) are all net losses, every year, overall.

I'm sorry, Vice President Biden; I'm sorry train lovers everywhere.  I love trains too, but they are not a critical piece of America's infrastructure, nor is 19th century technology the key to America's future.  Amtrak has cost enough, it's time to cut this experiment free and save the taxpayers a lot of money.  When we're in the red by trillions of dollars its time to start looking at places that aren't working and start cutting them back.  That means a lot of lost jobs and lost dreams.

That's the sad part about all the waste and stupidity that's been going on in Washington for a century or more.  We have to cut to the bone because generations of voters kept sending generations of politicians to spend money wildly, and now its going to hurt.  People made their choice for decades, now we have to pay the price before those who come later pay an even greater one.

Maybe if congress can get our fiscal house in order, some day we can have passenger rail again in America, or maybe someone will find a way to make them more cost efficient and make money, in which case the established railroads will do it instead.  But for now, Amtrak is a luxury we just can't afford any longer.

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