Why Can’t We Have Great Trains? Because We Don’t Want Them

Why can’t America have great trains?” asks East Coast writer Simon Van Zuylen-Wood in the National Journal. The simple answer is, “Because we don’t want them.” The slightly longer answer is, “because the fastest trains are slower than flying; the most frequent trains are less convenient than driving; and trains are almost always more expensive than either flying or driving.”

Van Zuylen-Wood’s article contains familiar pro-passenger-train hype: praise for European and Asian trains; selective statistics about Amtrak ridership; and a search for villains in the federal government who are trying to kill the trains. The other side of the story is quite different.

For example, he notes that Amtrak “ridership has increased by roughly 50 percent in the past 15 years.” But he fails to note that the biggest driver of Amtrak ridership is gasoline prices, which 15 years ago were at an all-time low (after adjusting for inflation). Now that prices are falling, so is Amtrak’s ridership.

He also ignores the fact that Amtrak’s ridership is minuscule compared with flying or driving. Whereas highways moved around 87 percent of passenger travel and airlines around 12 percent in 2012, Amtrak’s share was just 0.14 percent. While that is an increase from 0.11 percent in 1999, it is a decrease from 0.15 to 0.16 percent in most of the years from 1975 through 1993, when gas prices were high.

Trains are great for moving large volumes of goods from point A to point B. America’s freight railroads are the envy of the world, but they make most of their money moving coal from mine to power plant; grain from elevator to port; and containers from port to inland distribution center. The railroads conceded less-than-carload shipments, the freight equivalent of passengers, to trucks and air freight back in 1975 when the Railway Express Agency went out of business.

Passenger train proponents argue that, over certain distances such as New York to Washington, trains can compete with airlines because trains have shorter downtown-to-downtown travel times. But the reality is that only 8 percent of Americans work downtown while less than 1 percent live downtown; in most urban areas, more people live or work within a few minutes of an airport than a train station.

One reason Amtrak’s share of travel is so low is that it is so expensive. While airfares averaged 13.8 cents per passenger mile in 2012, Amtrak fares averaged 33.9 cents. Amtrak is more expensive than driving, too, as Americans spend about 25 cents a passenger mile on auto travel (calculated by multiplying average auto occupancies by miles of driving divided by personal expenditures on driving).

Amtrak fares are high despite the subsidies it receives from federal and state governments. Rail proponents argue that all modes of transportation are subsidized, but they neglect to mention that Amtrak subsidies per passenger mile are close to twenty times greater than subsidies to highways or airlines. Comparing government revenues and expenditures by mode with passenger miles of travel over the past decade reveals that subsidies to driving and flying have each averaged a bit more than a penny per passenger mile, while subsidies to Amtrak are nearly 24 cents per passenger mile.  Counting user costs and subsidies, Amtrak is four times more expensive than flying and more than twice as expensive as driving.

Van Zuylen-Wood takes it for granted that Amtrak subsidies should be massively increased to bring America’s passenger rail system up to the standards found in Europe and Japan. Americans who visit Europe are often impressed by the region’s trains, but what they don’t see is that, despite the heavy subsidies to European passenger trains, European travel habits are not much different from our own. According to the European Union’s Panorama of Transport, residents of the EU-27 used intercity trains for just 6 percent of their travel while they drove for 74 percent in 2006, when Americans drove for 85 percent of travel. France has built lots of high-speed trains, yet 79 percent of travel there is by car.

Moreover, the countries that have built high-speed rail lines have succeeded mainly in capturing passengers away from low-speed trains, not cars or planes. Rail’s share of European travel was 8 percent before they began building high-speed rail lines; now it is just 6 percent.

Japan’s example is even more stark: when it built the world’s first high-speed rail line in 1964, only 12 percent of travel was by car and 70 percent was by train. Today, Japan has numerous high-speed trains, but trains carry little more than 25 percent of travel while cars carry 60 percent. The reality is that passenger trains are as obsolete in Europe and Japan as they are here, but local politicians keep throwing money at them.

Van Zuylen-Wood is so eager for his rail subsidies that he never mentions the clear alternative: intercity buses. In the last decade, and with virtually no subsidies, Megabus has revolutionized the intercity bus industry with low fares, mostly non-stop schedules, and free WiFi and power ports at each seat. While Van Zuylen-Wood repeats Amtrak’s claims that it carries more passengers in the New York-Washington corridor than the airlines, he neglects to mention that intercity buses carry even more than Amtrak (and automobiles carry many times more than all public conveyances combined).

Buses are more energy-efficient than rail, and between numerous city pairs offer more frequent and faster service than Amtrak at lower fares. For those who would turn up their noses at riding a bus, a number of companies offer luxury bus service between major cities with fewer seats, on-board food service, entertainment centers, and other amenities.

Amtrak supporters such as former Federal Railroad Administration director Joseph Szabo argue that passenger “rail deserves a predictable and reliable federal funding stream.” But it has one: fares. If fares won’t support passenger trains, there is no reason why the 99 percent of Americans who rarely if ever ride trains should be required to subsidize them. Let’s end all subsidies to all forms of transportation and let passenger trains operate where they can compete on a level playing field. That way people like Van Zuylen-Wood and myself can enjoy the trains we are willing to pay for and not expect others to subsidize our hobbies.