The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Amtrak Pushes Rail Costs on States

Amtrak plans this year to shift spending away from small, local routes, the better to service the highly trafficked ones. Now some states must decide whether to pay for the trains themselves or to cut the routes altogether. The WSJ reports:

Most Amtrak routes require subsidies because revenue collected through ticket sales is less than the cost of providing the service.

Amtrak officials say the decision to increase the contribution of several states reduces its costs, while making Amtrak’s support of rail service more uniform nationally. Amtrak traditionally has subsidized some local routes, while leaving others up to the states to support.

Pennsylvania transportation officials expect state costs for Amtrak service to more than double to $19.2 million a year for two major lines. While the state likely will pick up some of the new costs to keep the same service, it will be a challenge to do so for all the routes, said Toby Fauver, deputy secretary for local and area transportation for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

This is the dirty secret of American rail: There aren’t enough passengers to cover the costs of operating railroads. Cars are more convenient over short distances, planes are much faster over long ones, and buses offer more flexible service at much lower prices.

Given the budget crises afflicting many of the states involved, we hope that governors will seriously consider eliminating these routes. Obama’s decision to double down on promoting rail travel has been one of the serious blunders of his presidency, but at least states now have the chance to avoid making the same mistake. It may be too late for California to turn back, but other states have been given a golden opportunity to cut back on an inefficient and outdated system. They should take full advantage of it.

Published on January 23, 2013 12:21 pm