Why Amtrak will Always Require Subsidies

June 12, 2003

Some 32 years and more than $40 billion in subsidies (in today's dollars) after Amtrak was cobbled together from the remnants of various passenger rail systems, a nationwide poll shows 71 percent public support for subsidizing Amtrak at current or increased levels. Few of those polled, however, will ever cast a shadow on an Amtrak platform:

  • Amtrak accounts for only three-tenths of 1 percent of intercity travel.
  • In 2000, Americans took 665 million plane trips and 22.5 million Amtrak trips.
  • That may be because an airliner can make two Chicago-to-Los Angeles round trips in a day; a train takes 45 hours to go one way.
  • That is not unusual for long-distance trains -- the Texas Eagle, for example, averages 39 miles per hour on its 33-hour run between Chicago and San Antonio.

Without subsidies, says George Will, Amtrak operations in the Northeast Corridor would end for 1.1 million passengers a month. Perhaps Amtrak, or at least its Northeast Corridor operations, could be made into a private train-operating company, with federal and state governments responsible for infrastructure. But the required legislative logrolling will also guarantee continuing subsidies of long-distance trains (routes of at least 500 miles) beyond the corridor.

The head of Amtrak, David Gunn, says that for the next five years Amtrak will need subsidies declining only from $1.8 billion to $1.5 billion a year. That includes $4.5 billion of capital spending and, more depressing, $3.5 billion of operating subsidies.

Source: George Will, "Running Amtrak," Townhall.com, June 8, 2003.

 

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