June 21, 2002
Amtrak is broken...

...and needs major work to be fixed.

Daily Pundit linked the article I wish to discuss, but I have a lot to say about this subject. (Make sure to read the comments at his site, as they are germane to my argument).

The article discusses some of the changes that have been proposed for Amtrak, but the biggest money drain on the railroad is only touched upon briefly—long-distance routes. Amtrak CANNOT compete against the airlines for long-distance travel, and it is blindingly obvious to even the most casual observer.

Case in point: I will be traveling to Florida for two weeks in late July/early August. A quick search on Travelocity found a fare on Northwest Airways for $261.50. It had one connection each way (in Minneapolis) and would take about 8 hours each way (allowing for time zone changes and the layover in MSP). By contrast, the Amtrak trip would entail two train changes (in Chicago and Washington, DC) and would take 4 DAYS each way. To top it off, the Amtrak ticket would cost $425, more than 60% higher than the air fare.

Amtrak is caught in a dual mandate, one that they cannot possibly hope to fulfill. They are simultaneously expected to make money and serve every little podunk town in the US. Many point to the European rail system as a model for Amtrak, but forget that the distances in the US are far greater than in the European countries (the distance between Seattle and Miami is slightly greater than the distance between Lisbon, Portugal, and Budapest, Hungary, which is a trip through at least seven different nations). Further, the US has a much higher proportion of people with cars, which lessens the need for trains. What works in Europe won't necessarily work here in the US.

Amtrak has profitable routes—one in the NE corridor, between Boston and Washington, with service to cities in between, and the Pacific Surfliner, between San Diego and Los Angeles—but they are smothered by routes that serve very few passengers. One of the proposals is to break Amtrak up into several regional lines, with their own priorities and decision-making capabilities. This is a start. Another would be to look at the personnel issue—Amtrak has a lot of employees on each train, and some are probably not needed. Significant cost savings could be realized by simply eliminating some of the extra positions currently required by union rules (the unions are going to have to work with the management on this issue, unless they want *all* of the jobs to go away.) By working with state and local governments, these smaller, more nimble companies could develop ways of moving larger numbers of people than Amtrak currently does, while recognizing that the days of transcontinental rail travel are over. Heavy rail along commuter lines might be a viable option, as the "baby Amtrak" could supply the rolling stock, and local governments would pay the traditional subsidies directly to the company (all heavy rail projects in the US receive subsidies; this is not going to change; the new companies would provide some competition to the companies that are formed to operate with these subsidies, however).

I feel that there is a place for Amtrak (I was a regular user of the train when I lived in San Diego, as I had friends who lived in Irvine; I used to take the train when I visited them every few months). If Amtrak can be transformed from its current money-pit on wheels to something that can at least break even, it should be considered a major victory.

posted on June 21, 2002 08:06 PM


Reminds me of a long since fired co worker. He would say "You can buy better but, you can't pay more."

posted by Fred Boness on June 21, 2002 08:16 PM

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