The Wall Street Journal (subsction required) says that, “After more than three decades and $29 billion, it’d be nice to think Washington could learn how to run a railroad. But it hasn’t, so it is entirely fitting that in his Fiscal Year 2006 budget President Bush is proposing to eliminate all funding for the operating expenses of the federal railroad known as Amtrak unless significant reform takes place”:
If going from more than a billion dollars to zero seems unfair, consider that Amtrak has had 34 years to get its caboose in order. It was set up in 1971 with the idea that it would rapidly become a for-profit, self-sustaining entity. Instead, as the nearby chart shows, the federal subsidies have grown larger and larger.
Amtrak supporters love to make the argument that rail travel is somehow more cost-efficient than other modes of transportation and that the billions thrown at the national railroad go further than the money spent on highways, commercial air travel and urban transit. A recent study from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows otherwise.
BTS gathered data on federal subsidies to these four areas between 1990-2002, subtracted any revenues brought in by user fees, and then divided by the number of passenger-miles. As the report says, the aim was “to show the amount of subsidy relative to the level of use.” This is as close as you can get to comparing apples to apples, says Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation.
The results? Amtrak weighed in with an average subsidy of $186.35 per thousand passenger miles — a sum that could take you across the country and back on JetBlue. That compares with average subsidies of $118.26 for urban transit and $6 for airlines. Highway users actually ended up paying Washington $1.91 per thousand passenger miles.
Reformers have been arguing for years that Amtrak might be able to make it financially if the well-traveled Northeast Corridor was spun off into a private entity and money-losing routes were closed. Other inter-city routes could be open to competition, and if someone could make money from passengers eager to ride the train between Omaha and Chicago, so be it.
We’re under no illusions that Members of Congress from the Northeast won’t continue their political log-rolling over Amtrak. But if Republicans who claim to believe in spending restraint can’t cut off funding for a money-losing federal monopoly in passenger rail, they can’t kill anything.
Frankly, my money’s on the latter.