Amtrack is Running Off Track

In 1971 the federal government decided to take control of Amtrak’s rail passenger service. The train service doesn’t reduce traffic congestion, doesn’t cut pollution levels, doesn’t save energy, and isn’t integral to intercity travel, because so few people ride the trains. During the Reagan administration, the government declared Amtrak a, “mobile money burning machine,” because its operations were grossly unprofitable and horrendously inefficient.

Since Reagan’s reign ended, another $15 billion of taxpayer subsidies have been funneled into Amtrak. Now Republicans in Congress are poised to toss Amtrak its seventh emergency bailout, this time $1.2 billion to keep the trains running through 2006. But Amtrak has poorly served customers and taxpayers. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Amtrak loses $1 billion a year ($45 per rider) without including $10 billion in deferred maintenance costs. Every route run by Amtrak loses money, and the long-distance route from Los Angeles to Florida loses $400 for every passenger who comes aboard. It would cost taxpayers less if Congress purchased free discount airline tickets for every traveler. There is no law of economics that train service has to lose money — although it’s a pretty sure bet that a train run by the government will. A Congress serious about fiscal restraint would privatize Amtrak, lift its indefensible monopoly status as the sole provider of rail passenger service in America, and let the market determine where and how train service can operate in the black. Instead the GOP House agreed in late June to dole out $1.2 billion more in subsidies. President Bush could do taxpayers a service by vetoing this blank check for Amtrak, demonstrating that he’s serious about restoring fiscal responsibility in Washington.