Amtrak’s Response to COVID-19

September 3, 2020 • Testimony

Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, & Hazardous Materials
Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure
United States House of Representatives

Dear Chairman Lipinski, Ranking Member Crawford, and members of the subcommittee:

My name is Randal O’Toole and I am a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need, as well as of several policy papers about Amtrak. Thank you for allowing me to submit comments for the September 9, 2020 hearing on Amtrak.

I love passenger trains and ride them whenever I get the opportunity, but I don’t think other people should have to subsidize my hobby. Objectively, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that Amtrak is an insignificant and obsolete part of our transportation system and does not deserve the attention and federal funds given to it by Congress. Even before the pandemic, Amtrak’s contribution to transportation was less than a rounding error.

According to table 1–40 of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ National Transportation Statistics, Amtrak carried the average American less than 20 miles in 2018. For comparison, Americans bicycled an average of 26 miles per year and walked an average of more than 100 miles per year. Motor coaches carried more than ten times as many passenger miles as Amtrak; domestic airliners more than 110 times; and automobiles more than 750 times as many passenger miles as Amtrak. Nationally, Amtrak carried just one‐​tenth of one percent of passenger travel.

Amtrak brags that it carries more people than the airlines in the Northeast Corridor. But it admits that it carries just 6 percent of intercity travel in the corridor, with the airlines carrying 5 percent and the rest going by bus or automobile. While no one keeps an exact record, based on bus schedules and average bus loads, I estimate that intercity buses alone carry about 25 percent more passenger miles in the corridor than Amtrak. Amtrak’s insignificance has been underscored by the current pandemic. In a crisis such as the pandemic, the relative worth of various modes of transportation can be assessed by how much they are affected by the crisis and how quickly they rebound.


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