The day of reckoning has finally arrived for a number of short-haul Amtrak routes in the American heartland. After years of delivering subsidies for low-ridership routes connecting cities like Chicago and Indianapolis or Oklahoma City and Dallas, the federal money train is about to make its final stop, leaving the states to pick up the slack, if they so choose. Some states have already agreed to pay for all or part of the routes, but others are on the fence or even leaning towards pulling back. The WSJ looks at the debate in Indiana, where the state government is seriously considering cutting a line that serves fewer than 200 people per day:
Residents of this capital city looking to visit Chicago can board an Amtrak train for a five-hour journey that costs about $24—a price that excludes the $80-per-ticket in federal subsidies that keep the service running.Or they can take a bus for about $24 to $37, with no direct government subsidy, a trip scheduled at a bit more than three hours.Amtrak’s Hoosier State service, a 196-mile run from Indianapolis to Chicago, travels through the state’s cornfields and small towns four times a week. Congress, under a 2008 law, cut off funding for that line and other short Amtrak routes across the U.S. starting Oct. 1. Amtrak will require Indiana to pony up $3 million a year to maintain the train, sparking a political tussle among small-town mayors, state budget hawks and fans of passenger rail.
It’s tough to make the case for a rail service that is both slower and more expensive to run than a bus. And this scenario isn’t unique to Indiana: the vast majority of Amtrak routes outside the Northeast Corridor are rarely used, wildly unprofitable, and have cheaper, faster, or more convenient alternatives in the form of planes, buses and cars. We hope the states will take the opportunity to close down services that have long since outlived their usefulness, saving taxpayers’ money in the process.[Amtrak photo courtesy of Shutterstock]