“Folly” of $66 Billion Subsidy for Trains, When Americans Prefer Cars and Planes

(p. 9) While long-haul railroads have a beloved place in our history, Americans almost entirely abandoned them more than a half century ago for the greater convenience of cars and the speed of planes.

And yet, not only have we continued to run a hugely loss-making nationwide network of passenger trains, last week’s bipartisan infrastructure plan includes tens of billions more for an Amtrak-based transportation system that will only ever be used by a small sliver of Americans outside of the Northeast Corridor rail line (known as the N.E.C.), which stretches from Washington to Boston.

The folly of another $66 billion — mostly for passenger railroads, one of the biggest allocations in the bipartisan compromise — makes me doubt how well other pieces of the trillions in spending proposed by the administration will be allocated. (President Biden wanted even more for Amtrak.)

. . .

Really? Consider a few stats: In the 2019 fiscal year, when excluding the N.E.C., Amtrak carried just 4.5 million passengers (not including services subsidized by states and cities), roughly 1.4 percent of our population. On average, passengers paid $115 while Amtrak spent $222 to transport each of them.

Unprofitable ticket prices notwithstanding, long-distance train travel dropped by 5.4 percent between the 2010 and 2018 fiscal years, while air travel rose by nearly 24 percent. On average, Amtrak filled only 55 percent of its long-distance seats in 2018. Does that warrant another $66 billion?

. . .

Populous California, where the automobile has reigned for decades, is an example of why betting on an American train travel revival is questionable. High-speed service between Los Angeles and San Francisco — which was approved by voters in 2008 at an estimated cost of $33 billion with completion expected in 2020 — remains a mirage. Completion is unlikely before 2030, while outlays are now projected to total at least $100 billion.

The California fiasco illustrates how execution will be key to implementing any infrastructure projects. But the government’s record is not great.

For the full commentary, see:

Steven Rattner. “Who Needs Amtrak? Not Wyoming.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sunday, July 4, 2021): 9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 1, 2021, and has the title “Why ‘Amtrak Joe’ Should Pull Back on Train Funding’.” Where the wording of the two versions slightly differs, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.