The president wants to pour billions more into a service that only makes sense in a few areas.
Originally published in the New York Times.
Ah, the romantic suspense of train travel: Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint canoodling in “North by Northwest.” Farley Granger and Robert Walker conspiring in “Strangers on a Train.” While long-haul railroads have a beloved place in our history, Americans almost entirely abandoned them more than a half century ago for the greater convenience of cars and the speed of planes.
And yet, not only have we continued to run a hugely loss-making nationwide network of passenger trains, last week’s bipartisan infrastructure plan includes tens of billions more for an Amtrak-based transportation system that will only ever be used by a small sliver of Americans outside of the Northeast Corridor rail line (known as the N.E.C.), which stretches from Washington to Boston.
The folly of another $66 billion — mostly for passenger railroads, one of the biggest allocations in the bipartisan compromise — makes me doubt how well other pieces of the trillions in spending proposed by the administration will be allocated. (President Biden wanted even more for Amtrak.)
Passenger trains are nice, but are only truly useful in dense areas. Meanwhile, we must dedicate much more resources to expanding broadband, getting cleaner water, better airports, and making sure our bridges and buildings are not in danger of collapsing.
But will the money be apportioned based on true need and spent efficiently — or will we end up with more Amtrak-esque infrastructure? The government-owned corporation, which operates in 46 of our 50 states, lost $475 million on its long-distance trains in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2019. (Then, there are repairs, equipment costs and other capital expenditures.)
On the same day that President Biden unveiled his proposal to shovel billions into its coffers, the company announced plans to serve up to 160 new communities, including routes that would terminate in places like Duluth, Minn., Christiansburg, Va., and Cheyenne, Wyo. (thus making Wyoming the 47th state with service).
Really? Consider a few stats: In the 2019 fiscal year, when excluding the N.E.C., Amtrak carried just 4.5 million passengers (not including services subsidized by states and cities), roughly 1.4 percent of our population. On average, passengers paid $115 while Amtrak spent $222 to transport each of them.
Unprofitable ticket prices notwithstanding, long-distance train travel dropped by 5.4 percent between the 2010 and 2018 fiscal years, while air travel rose by nearly 24 percent. On average, Amtrak filled only 55 percent of its long-distance seats in 2018. Does that warrant another $66 billion?
America is not Europe, with its dense population centers clustered reasonably close together. Nor is it China, essentially starting afresh and without the regulatory, labor and bureaucratic issues that plague government projects here.
We should only be spending money on services that can attract many passengers and produce profitable train service, like the N.E.C., traversed by the Acela.
President Biden had it right while he was a senator — taking Amtrak from Delaware to Washington and walking a few blocks to the Capitol was sensible. For many, it still is: Northeast Corridor traffic rose 20 percent between 2010 and 2019. Roughly 12.5 million passengers used the service in 2019, more than the number that flew along that route. As a result, Amtrak makes a profit on it.
And that’s without the Northeast having any true high-speed rail, which is not mentioned in the Amtrak plan and only briefly touched on in the Biden proposal.
Populous California, where the automobile has reigned for decades, is an example of why betting on an American train travel revival is questionable. High-speed service between Los Angeles and San Francisco — which was approved by voters in 2008 at an estimated cost of $33 billion with completion expected in 2020 — remains a mirage. Completion is unlikely before 2030, while outlays are now projected to total at least $100 billion.
The California fiasco illustrates how execution will be key to implementing any infrastructure projects. But the government’s record is not great. The Federal Aviation Administration has been working on “NextGen” air traffic control for more than 15 years and it is still years from completion. By shortening flight lengths, this could do more for the climate than many other ideas being batted around, save countless hours of travel time and billions of dollars.
If the hundreds of billions of new money in the bipartisan infrastructure agreement are passed this year, policymakers and bureaucrats need to do better job. We can use the private sector when appropriate and apply rigorous analysis — not politics or nostalgia — to allocating public funds.
We’d be much further along as a nation, if we had done that already.