Planes, trains or automobiles. An Irreverent View of Amtrak.
By Shamus McConomy
Two phenomenon have occurred to make trains popular in America, the animated television character “Thomas the Tank Engine” and Vice President Joe Biden. During the 2008 presidential campaign he became the national poster child for Amtrak. Stories of him commuting between his Delaware home and Washington D.C., on Amtrak, provided an interesting vignette of Senator Joe Biden as just an “average Joe.” The problem with Vice President Biden’s love affair with trains is
it costs the tax payers $1 billion dollars per year to subsidize a product we as consumers have proven we don’t want but as taxpayers support.
The issue with Amtrak is that it is emblematic of the government’s inability to pull the plug on any program, no matter how much money it wastes and how useless it is. Amtrak came about as the result of the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970, which was our government’s solution to the private sector’s near elimination of unprofitable passenger rail service. True to the government’s self appointed roll as economic firemen, as the private sector was running out of this burning building, the government was running in. Yet despite decades of federal subsidies, Amtrak the public corporation (public as in government-owned) has never turned a profit. Furthermore growth of the discount airline industry has made passenger rail service even less relevant to the national transportation landscape.
If you need proof that a national rail system is obsolete and not worth our tax money, check out the options I found when planning a trip to San Antonio this summer. Having to take the entire family to a wedding and previously never paying airfare for my children, I had tremendous sticker shock at the $1100 total airfare for my family of four. Erroneously assuming Amtrak’s role was to provide an inexpensive travel alternative I took a stab at taking the family via train. The result of this inquiry was enough to send Snidely Whiplash to Washington to tie our politicians to the train tracks.
WARNING: the following trip itineraries are true.
Option 1: Depart Friday morning on Southwest Airlines from Tampa to San Antonio for a two hour forty minute flight. Total airfare $1100. Attend the rehearsal dinner and wedding, with time to see the Alamo and then return to Tampa in short order.
Option 2: Depart Thursday morning from Tampa’s Amtrak station and take a bus to Orlando. Yes, a bus. From Orlando, take Amtrak’s #98 Silver Meteor to Washington D.C. While waiting eight hours and fifteen minutes to leave Washington, we take the metro to the U.S. Naval Observatory and thank Vice President Topham Hatt for subsidizing my vacation. Later we hop on the #29 Capital Limited for the third leg of the trip to San Antonio – this time via Chicago. With only six hours to make our connecting train to San Antonio, we hurry to catch the 21 Texas Eagle. Once we arrive in San Antonio Sunday afternoon, we will have enough time to present the newlyweds their wedding gift (the wedding was yesterday) before returning home to Tampa three or four days later. For the pleasure of this 84 hour 15 minute whistle-stop tour of America I will pay $1,752, a savings of negative $652 versus flying. And that was for coach! I would hate to see the cost without the subsidy.
Option 3: This option is only available if Option 2 is selected but it involves my fuming mad wife taking the kids and booking a return flight on Southwest, while I am sent back to Tampa via rail to think about what I’ve done in an effort to act like a European.
The Washington geniuses we call politicians believe the solution to our rail and economic woes can be found in making our choo-choos faster. Yes the high speed rail is going to create jobs and help us emulate our rail loving European cousins. President Obama has openly demonstrated his envy of said Europeans who can travel by their continent by rail while simultaneously avoiding their role in international conflicts (did I say that out loud?). This rail envy ignores the fact that Western Europe is roughly the size of the Northeastern section of the United States (where incidentally, passenger rail kind of actually works). While backpacking college kids voyaging to Amsterdam to score legal weed may love the European rail system, America’s present and future national transportation has been overwhelmingly voted on by American consumers. The winner each time is air travel and the existing Interstate Highway system.
Although I’ve railed on Amtrak (pun intended) the message herein is really a cautionary illustration on how government runs “public/private” companies like Amtrak and the Post Office. Instead of acknowledging that the only feasible routes are the regional routes of 200 miles or less, government pumps money into an 1810 dream of a national rail system, instead of acknowledging the 2010 reality. The government is currently increasing its involvement into private industry through TARP and bailouts, so it is important to note situations, such as Amtrak, proving politicians will fund losing initiatives for political expediency.
Now that the government is in the car business can I interest you in a hybrid Edsel?
Shamus McConomy is a resident of the Tampa Bay Area where he has spent his career as a lender to small and medium sized businesses. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Finance from the University of South Florida and an M.B.A. from the University of Tampa. E-mail him at: email@example.com