Tag: Amtrak

Brookings Glosses Over Amtrak’s Failings

Intercity passenger trains are experiencing a “renaissance” with Amtrak ridership growing “faster than other major travel modes,” says a new report from the Brookings Institution. Indeed, the report continues, Amtrak’s short-distance trains (generally, routes of around 200 to 600 miles) have, on average, a “positive operating balance,” so more such short-distance routes should be added.

As a long-time lover of passenger trains, I wish the report’s statements were true, but they are not. To reach these conclusions, Brookings scholars have selectively used data; ignored one of the major travel modes; and relied on Amtrak accounting tricks to disguise losses.

The rapid growth of rail passenger travel that they report is from 1997 to 2012, but 1997 was near the bottom of a trough in Amtrak ridership. If they had gone back to 1991, which was Amtrak’s peak before 2010, the would have revealed a very different story.

From 1991 to 2012, Amtrak passenger miles grew by a paltry 8 percent (compared with 32 percent between 1997 and 2012), while airline passenger miles grew by 68 percent (vs. 26 percent from 1997 to 2012). Let’s see: air travel grew 68 percent; Amtrak 8 percent. Not much of a rail renaissance, is there?

Of course, using 1991 instead of 1997 makes me just as selective as Brookings. So the chart above just compares the trends from 1990 to 2012. The important thing to note about the chart: Amtrak is insigificant, carrying in recent years little more than 1 percent as many passenger miles as the airlines. Amtrak would appear even more insignificant if the vertical scale were raised to show intercity driving of personal vehicles (as opposed to trucks and buses), which moves about 200 times as many passenger miles as Amtrak.

Amtrak’s performance looks even more dismal on a per capita basis. Amtrak may have posted record ridership in 2012, but the nation’s population was also 25 percent greater than in 1991 when Amtrak per capita ridership peaked at a mere 25 miles per person. Today, it is 13 percent less.  

When Brookings compares Amtrak with “other major travel modes,” it implies that Amtrak itself is a major travel mode. In fact, Amtrak’s 22 miles per person in 2012 compares with more than 1,800 miles in air travel and 4,200 miles in intercity auto travel. As a result, Amtrak carries only about 0.36 percent of intercity passenger travel in the U.S. That’s up from 1997, when it was 0.32 percent, but down from 1991, when it was 0.45 percent. Fluctuating between a third and a half percent does not make Amtrak a “major travel mode.”

Amtrak Shrugged

Watching one of the first showings of Part II of Atlas Shrugged was a surrealistic experience for me after testifying earlier in the day (September 20) to the House Transportation Committee about Amtrak. In the movie, government officials piously argue that for the “greater good” they need to provide “guidance” to the nation’s capitalists—and the more guidance they give, the more capitalism fails, which naturally justifies even more guidance.

In the hearing, I testified that Amtrak can’t be reformed because, as a government entity, it will still be controlled by politics, and the only solution was privatization. This led Peter DeFazio, my own former congressman (I moved to an adjacent district four years ago) to reem me out for not having faith in government.

“You don’t believe government should run our air traffic control? You don’t believe government should run our highways? You don’t believe government should subsidize the Port of Los Angeles?” Before I could fully answer each question, he would roll his eyes and interrupt me with incredulous moans. Fortunately, one of the other committee members rescued me and gave me a chance to answer.

Ironically, one of DeFazio’s own questions should have been his undoing. Somehow, he didn’t think Americans could manage to buy cheap goods from Asia unless the federal government subsidized the Port of Los Angeles. Aside from the fact that he probably bemoans the import of cheap goods from Asia, why subsidize the Port of Los Angeles when there are so many other suitable West Coast ports—and in particular, the heavily underutilized Port of Coos Bay in DeFazio’s own district?

Of course, DeFazio also thinks the feds should subsidize the Port of Coos Bay. But given that the Los Angeles metro area has 12 million people and therefore some two dozen representatives in Congress, while the Coos Bay area has about 60,000 people and therefore a fraction of one representative, subsidies are mainly going to go to the former and not the latter even though the latter is a much better natural harbor.

But it was not just DeFazio who supported government control of the economy. Republicans and Democrats at the hearing were equally guilty of thinking that they, the enlightened representatives of the people, should decide where “investments” should be made in transportation, how much people should get paid, and who should produce what “for the greater good.”

“Everyone here believes in creating jobs,” said one Republican. I wanted to raise my hand and say, “No, I believe in creating wealth, not jobs. Your idea of ‘creating jobs’ destroys wealth by taking from some people the wealth they created and giving to others who aren’t creating it.” But I realized that by “everybody here,” the Member meant “every elected official in the room,” not us non-entities who were there to testify or witness the hearing.

Later, another Republican who had been critical of Amtrak’s losses said, “No one here wants to destroy Amtrak; we just want it to run more efficiently.” Once again, I wanted to raise my hand and say, “I want to destroy Amtrak, because Amtrak is spending phenomenal amounts of money running crappy trains.” But again, I restrained myself.

Rather than privatize Amtrak, at least some Republicans propose to contract out Amtrak’s trains to private operators. Congress would still decide where those trains should run. The Republicans who support this proposal would also require the private operators to honor Amtrak’s contracts with workers. Those two requirements would destroy most of the benefits of contracting out.

In Atlas Shrugged, a man named John Galt convinces all the smart people in the country to “go on strike” until the government fails from mediocrity. Fortunately, such a strike won’t be necessary in real life as the mediocre results of government control will lead to failure all by itself. We just have to hope that there is enough wealth left in the country that we can put it back together.

Beware the Depends Bomber?

My Washington Examiner column this week is on TSA, the federal agency that’s its own reductio ad absurdum.

In the latest TSA atrocity, the agency forced a wheelchair-bound, 95-year-old leukemia patient to remove her adult diaper, for fear she might be wired to explode. “It’s something I couldn’t imagine happening on American soil,” her distraught daughter told the press: “Here is my mother, 95 years old, 105 pounds, barely able to stand, and then this.”

My God, what is she on about? Proper procedure was followed!

As I point out in the column:

in a classic case of “mission creep,” TSA is taking its show on the road and the rails.

Remember when, pushing his bullet-train boondoggle in the 2011 State of the Union, President Obama cracked that it would let you travel “without the pat-down”? Not funny—also, not true.

Earlier this year, Amtrak passengers in Savannah, Ga., stepped off into a TSA checkpoint. Though the travelers had already disembarked the train, agents made women lift their shirts to check for bra explosives. Two weeks ago, armed TSA and Homeland Security agents hit a bus depot in Des Moines, Iowa, to question passengers and demand their papers.

These raids are the work of TSA’s “Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response” (VIPR or “Viper”) teams—an acronym at once senseless and menacing, much like the agency itself.

All this is happening at a time when al Qaeda looks more harried, pathetic, and weaker than ever. But hey, you can never be too careful, right?

Feel Safer?

High-Speed Rail and Federalism

Florida Governor Rick Scott deserves a big round of applause for dealing a major setback to the Obama administration’s costly plan for a national system of high-speed rail. As Randal O’Toole explains, the administration needed Florida to keep the $2.4 billion it was awarded to build a high-speed Orlando-to-Tampa line in order to build “momentum” for its plan. Instead, Scott put the interests of his taxpayers first and told the administration “no thanks.”

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the administration is going to dole the money back out to 22 passenger-rail projects in other states. Florida taxpayers were spared their state’s share of maintaining the line, but they’re still going to be forced to help foot the bill for passenger-rail projects in other states.

Here’s Randal’s summary:

Instead, the Department of Transportation gave nearly $1 billion of the $2.4 billion to Amtrak and states in the Northeast Corridor to replace worn out infrastructure and slightly speed up trains in that corridor, as well as connecting routes such as New Haven to Hartford and New York to Albany. Most of the rest of the money went to Midwestern states—Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, and Missouri—to buy new trains, improve stations, and do engineering studies of a few corridors such as the vital Minneapolis-to-Duluth corridor. Trains going an average of 57 mph instead of 52 mph are not going to inspire the public to spend $53 billion more on high-speed rail.

The administration did give California $300 million for its high-speed rail program. But, with that grant, the state still has only about 10 percent of the $65 billion estimated cost of a San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line, and there is no more money in the till. If the $300 million is ever spent, it will be for a 220-mph train to nowhere in California’s Central Valley.

Why should Floridians be taxed by the federal government to pay for passenger-rail in the northeast? If the states in the Northeast Corridor want to pick up the subsidy tab from the federal government, go for it. (I argue in a Cato essay on Amtrak that if the Northeast Corridor possesses the population density to support passenger-rail then it should just be privatized.)

I don’t know if taxpayers in Northeast Corridor would want to pick up the federal government’s share of the subsidies, but I’m pretty sure California taxpayers wouldn’t be interested in footing the entire $65 billion for their state’s high-speed boondoggle-in-the-works. As I’ve discussed before, the agitators for a national system of high-speed rail know this:

If California’s beleaguered taxpayers were asked to bear the full cost of financing HSR in their state, they would likely reject it. High-speed rail proponents know this, which is why they agitate to foist a big chunk of the burden onto federal taxpayers. The proponents pretend that HSR rail is in “the national interest,” but as a Cato essay on high-speed rail explains, “high-speed rail would not likely capture more than about 1 percent of the nation’s market for passenger travel.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, congressional Republicans aren’t happy that the administration is taking Florida’s money and spreading it around the country:

Monday’s announcement drew criticism from House Republican leaders, who questioned both the decision to divide the money into nearly two-dozen grants around the country—instead of concentrating it into fewer major projects—and the fact that many of the projects will benefit Amtrak, the federally subsidized passenger-rail operator.

I heartily agree with the Amtrak complaint, but I’m not sure why as a federal taxpayer I should feel better about instead “concentrating [the money] into fewer major projects.” Subsidizing passenger-rail is no more a proper role of the federal government than education or housing. Unfortunately, for all the criticisms of the Obama administrations and the constant talk about spending cuts, Republicans don’t appear to possess much more desire to limit the scope of the federal government’s activities than the Democrats.

See this Cato essay for more on fiscal federalism.

The Administration Concedes Defeat

To sell his high-speed rail program, President Obama desperately needed a success story—a high-speed train operating during his administration that would awe the public and lead to a national demand for more such lines. That success story was going to be Florida’s Orlando-to-Tampa line, the only true high-speed route (as opposed to speeding up existing trains by 3 to 5 mph) that could have been completed during Obama’s term in office (assuming he is re-elected).

Anticipating that success, the administration drafted a proposal to use federal gasoline taxes and a “new energy tax” to fund $53 billion for more high-speed rail lines over the next six years. (The proposal also included $250 billion for highways, $120 billion for urban transit, $27 billion for “livability,” and $25 billion for an infrastructure bank.)

The chances of that happening died when Florida Governor Rick Scott decided to turn back the $2.4 billion in federal dollars dedicated to the Orlando-Tampa line. To maintain momentum behind high-speed rail, the administration could have given all of that money to California, the only other state proposing to build true high-speed rail.

Instead, the Department of Transportation gave nearly $1 billion of the $2.4 billion to Amtrak and states in the Northeast Corridor to replace worn out infrastructure and slightly speed up trains in that corridor, as well as connecting routes such as New Haven to Hartford and New York to Albany. Most of the rest of the money went to Midwestern states—Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, and Missouri—to buy new trains, improve stations, and do engineering studies of a few corridors such as the vital Minneapolis-to-Duluth corridor. Trains going an average of 57 mph instead of 52 mph are not going to inspire the public to spend $53 billion more on high-speed rail.

The administration did give California $300 million for its high-speed rail program. But, with that grant, the state still has only about 10 percent of the $65 billion estimated cost of a San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line, and there is no more money in the till. If the $300 million is ever spent, it will be for a 220-mph train to nowhere in California’s Central Valley.

In essence, the administration has given up on high-speed rail. New York Times editorial writers haven’t figured that out yet, opining that Florida Governor Scott made a dreadful mistake when he rejected the rail money. In fact, as tax activist Doug Guetzloe told a Tampa newspaper, “Federally funded rail is like being given a brand new Maserati and then you have to pick up the gas and the insurance — forever. The car looks great, but the costs will kill you.”

The Times suggested that Florida taxpayers will resent Scott’s decision whenever they are stuck in traffic. But no one seriously believes that intercity rail will ever relieve traffic congestion, most of which is in cities, not between them. In its original application for high-speed rail funds, Florida’s DOT admitted that Orlando-to-Tampa traffic grows more every five years than all the cars the trains were expected to take off the road, so at best high-speed rail was a very expensive and temporary solution to congestion.

Outside of the Times editorial offices, most transportation experts agree that the President’s high-speed rail program is over and his draft transportation bill is dead on arrival. Taxpayers throughout the country should thank Scott (as well as Ohio Governor John Kasich and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker) for saving them the hundreds of billions of dollars that Obama’s program would have eventually cost.

Republican Agenda: Privatization

In coming months, new Republican members of Congress will be looking for ways to cut the budget deficit and also to increase economic growth. One way to do both is to privatize government assets, such as the U.S. Postal Service, Amtrak, and the air traffic control system.

Privatization can reduce deficits from the one-time gain of an asset sale and from the elimination of annual taxpayer subsidies. Privatization can spur economic growth by moving resources from moribund government agencies to the higher-productivity and more innovative private sector.

A new report by a trade magazine specializing in privatization confirms that the United States lags many nations on innovative infrastructure financing. Public Works Financing has been tallying data on “public-private partnerships” around the world since 1985. PPP is sort of half way toward the full privatization of government assets such as highways. I prefer full privatization (such as this highway), but PPP has swept the world in recent years and it is a step in the direction of market reform.

Public Works Financing is subscription only, but I can summarize a few findings from their October annual survey.

  • Since 1985, the magazine has tallied 1,867 PPP infrastructure projects worldwide valued at $712 billion. U.S. projects represented just 8 percent of the total value.
  • With a population about 10 percent as large as the United States, Canada had 53 percent of the U.S. PPP deal value. With a population of a similar size as the United States, Europe has had five times the value of PPP deals.
  • Of the 35 top global transportation firms doing PPP deals, the United States had only one firm, Flour, which was ranked number 33. Countries with firms heavily involved in PPP include Spain, Australia, China, and France. American entrepreneurs are apparently losing out because U.S. policymakers are asleep at the switch regarding private sector infrastructure financing.

Examples of PPP in the United States include the project to widen the Capital Beltway in Virginia, which involves the firms Transurban and Flour, and the leasing of the Indiana Toll Road, which involves Cintra and Macquarie. These deals aren’t full privatization, but they will hopefully bring some market efficiencies into an area of the economy dominated by the government over the last half century.

Congress is expected to write a major transportation authorization bill next year. The likely GOP chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, John Mica, has a more favorable view of private infrastructure than the prior Democratic chairmen. However, it is not clear that some of the incoming Republicans really understand the anti-spending message that voters delivered on Tuesday. Regarding President Obama’s $8 billion in wasteful high-speed rail subsidies, Mica did not call for killing them, but just for making them “better directed.”

The election ended the debate over whether to cut federal spending, but the debate about cutting particular programs has just begun.

Amtrak’s New Rail Cars

Amtrak has announced that it will spend $300 million on 130 new rail cars, including sleeper and dining cars, for its long-distance trains. The government company’s announcement came with the obligatory statement that the purchase will create 575 jobs. That’s more than $500,000 per job.

As a Cato essay on Amtrak discusses, all of Amtrak’s long-distance routes are money-losers. For example, the Sunset Limited, which runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles, lost $462 per passenger in 2008. According to the Government Accountability Office, long-distance routes account for 15 percent of riders but 80 percent of financial losses.

Amenities like sleeping and dining services contribute to the red ink:

The demographic being served by these long-term routes does not demonstrate a strong need for taxpayer subsidies. Eighty percent of long-distance train riders use it for recreational and leisure trips, and riders tend to be retirees. Premium services like sleeper and dining cars contribute to operating losses for long-distance trains. These amenities are heavily subsidized, which means taxpayers—and not the pleasure-seeking retirees—are incurring the burden.

To maintain its unprofitable routes, Amtrak is dependent on federal subsidies, which are usually about $1.5 billion a year (Amtrak also recently received $1.3 billion in stimulus money). Amtrak has asked for $2.5 for the upcoming fiscal year, and the Senate Appropriations Committee has proposed a 25 percent increase.

Amtrak’s press release brags: “Last fiscal year (FY 2009), the railroad carried 27.2 million passengers, making it the second-best year in the company’s history.” That sounds good until you realize that Amtrak accounts for only 0.1 percent of the nation’s passenger travel. Moreover, Amtrak projected in 1976 that its ridership would grow from 17.3 million in 1975 to 32.9 million by 1980.

With the nation’s debt spiraling out of control, taxpayers can no longer afford to subsidize Congress’s toy train. If intercity passenger rail makes economic sense, it could be profitably supported by its ridership and run as a private company. If not, then it makes no more sense for taxpayers to keep Amtrak operating than it would be for the federal government to subsidize stagecoaches.