April 27, 2010
The Washington Post takes a look at the state of Amtrak and finds that train delays are a chronic problem. As a Cato essay on privatization notes, Amtrak “has provided second-rate rail service for more than 30 years while consuming more than $30 billion in federal subsidies.”
From the Post:
Though many trains do run on time, or close to it, rail passengers frequently find themselves stuck in travel purgatory, because some unforeseen situation has tripped up Amtrak: A sluggish freight train is blocking the way; the engine’s power source has conked out; a ne’er-do-well cow has wandered onto the tracks; there’s cleanup on Track 1. The causes are legion, the delays legendary.“It’s a love-hate situation,” said Jim Wrinn, editor of Trains magazine. “There’s this promise of a really nice ride and experience, but it’s really not there.”
The Post quotes the head of a high-speed rail advocacy group saying that Amtrak’s chief problem is it needs more money. An Amtrak spokesperson says “Amtrak was starved for funding for many, many years.”
Amtrak has been bleeding red ink since its inception in 1971, requiring ongoing taxpayer support to keep it alive. In addition to losing over a $1 billion annually, Amtrak has large liabilities due to deferred maintenance and accumulated debt. The Department of Transportation’s inspector general estimates that Amtrak has $6 billion in backlogged capital maintenance needs for items such as replacing aging infrastructure.
The DOT inspector stated in 2006 testimony before Congress:
The current model for providing intercity passenger service continues to produce financial instability and poor service quality. Despite multiple efforts over the years to change Amtrak’s structure and funding, we have a system that limps along, is never in a state-of-good-repair, awash in debt, and perpetually on the edge of collapse. In the end, Amtrak has been tasked to be all things to all people, but the model under which it operates leaves many unsatisfied.
Instead of wasting more taxpayer money on a nationwide system of intercity rail that doesn’t make economic sense, Amtrak should be privatized. Private managers would have the flexibility to cut labor costs and drop unprofitable routes that are only keep alive for political reasons. Private operators could probably make high density corridors profitable and would have strong interest in making the trains run on time.