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.