Skip to content

The Outrage of Amtrak

June 26, 2008

Train buff Charlie Martin demonstrates simply and devastatingly, why those who advocate more rail travel in the U.S. are letting their romantic attraction to trains get the better of their rational judgment. (In this case the subject is Megan McArdle, who has previously advocated a similarly misguided extension of the the DC Metro to Dulles airport.) Charlie writes:

I can imagine taking the train to New York on vacation, because I am a train nut and the trip would be fun in itself. But let’s think about this as a business trip: taking the train would not only cost about 1.5 times as much — or four times as much with a compartment, and I’m just sure I’d be all set to go right to work in New York after two full days in a coach seat — but it consumes four working days in travel time. I can manage a one-day business trip by plane, but a one-day trip to New York by train is a five-day trip. Subsidies won’t help: counting in the lost time, Amtrak would have to pay me $4,000 to make up for the time difference. The travel time difference is so large that Amtrak couldn’t compete if train tickets were free.

Reading the actual numbers in Charlie’s post was sufficiently eye-opening to make me wonder who would take a train? My wife’s short answer was "retirees," but more broadly the answer is: people who like train travel as entertainment.

I have no problem with that, but it does make me wonder why the taxpayers are subsidizing Amtrak as a recreational activity. These subsidies aren’t small either! The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that in the last year for which data is available the subsidy per 1,000 passenger miles on the train was a whopping $200 (and was over $400 in 1998). This compares to $6 per 1,000 passenger mile for commercial aviation and minus $1 for automobiles. The subsidy for railroad travel is by far higher than that for any other mode of transportation (including transit!).

Would anyone really design such a system if they were starting from scratch and not facing pressure from established interest groups? The answer is obvious.

(HT Virginia Postrel)

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: