June 12, 2008

The Tragedy of American Passenger Rail Transit

When I've traveled in Europe, I've taken both the high-speed and regular rail systems there. Both trans-European and intra-national travel are fast, timely, and efficient. Travel between countries is priced competitively with air travel and travel on DeutscheBahn within Germany is cheaper than driving. My only complaint is that the food cars are not stocked with enough food and too frequently, tour groups of teenagers descend upon the concession car like locusts as soon as the train pulls out of the station, leaving nothing for the adults to eat later.

Which makes it a shame to come home to the U.S. and find functionally no rail transit anywhere. Rail transit would be a great thing had we invested in it many years ago. It would provide an affordable alternative to air travel between cities for commerce, in particular tourism, and of course we've all heard touts of the beneficial effects of rail on air pollution when used for local commuting.

So I can understand why Congress doesn't want to let go of Amtrak and instead insists on funding and subsidizing it. But it's a mistake to do that. Billions upon billions of dollars will be wasted so Amtrak can run nearly empty trains from Los Angeles to Chicago, slowly. It takes nearly as long to take the train from Oakland to Seattle as it would to drive. And it's more expensive than driving anyway. And Amtrak found a way to somehow make a run from Los Angeles to Las Vegas so slow and unprofitable that it could not be sustained even with Federal subsidies. Southwest Airlines figures out how to fly you from L.A. to Vegas for thirty bucks each way, with total boarding-to-casino time of just over an hour.

As far as I can tell, Amtrak has one (1) profitable rail line: the Acela, which caters to commuters and business travelers along the Boston to Washington D.C. corridor. Acela is profitable because it is fast, reliable, competitively-prices with commuter flights, and exploits the geography of the major commercial centers along its route -- Boston, Hartford, New York, Jersey City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and D.C. are all in a nice line, and reasonably close to one another. If the Acela line stopped getting Federal subsidies, a private company would buy and operate it almost instantly and commuters would never notice the difference. Or maybe they would, in that service might actually improve.

But no private company would buy Amtrak as a whole. Until and unless passenger rail service improves in terms of quality and speed, demand for the service will never rise to the point that prices can fall. Why would I spend four hundred dollars for a one-way ticket from Los Angeles to Chicago that takes three days to get there? I can drive to Chicago in three days and spend a similar amount on gas. Rail has to be faster than the interstates, at a minimum, before it becomes a realistic travel alternative.

Also, I pretty much can't go to Houston by rail (should I want to go to Houston) without going through Chicago first. That means that if I'm in L.A. and I want to go to Houston, Amtrak is actually slower, and more expensive, than driving. In theory, routing all trans-national routes through Chicago is really great -- if you either live in or are going to Chicago. Otherwise, not so much.

If the Feds feel compelled to subsidize Amtrak, they shouldn't subsidize existing service and routes. The money should go to upgrading the routes to handle high-speed trains and building additional routes to supplement the Chicago-centric hub Amtrak currently uses. But as it is, this is just another case of the government lighting money on fire.

1 comment:

Arnie said...

There are so many things wrong with Amtrak. You have grazed the surface. Yes, it is an absolute waste of time and money for the Fed to run and subsidize Amtrak. The potential for Amtrak to make money is huge. But since it is subsidized by the Fed, every congressman tries to insure his or her district benefits from the public feeding trough. How about this idea? Load flat cars with trucks and take them cross country instead of having the truckers complain about fuel prices? It should be relatively simple to analyze where the trucks go and then provide Amtrak service as a cheaper alternative to the truckers. Also, Amtrak currently provides a service from the DC area to Sanford Florida whereby they carry the families and cars of the folks visiting Orlando. It also is always fully booked well in advance. (It is the only other profitable aspect of Amtrak besides Acela) Do you think people would use that service in other areas of the country? Of course, but its just not available.