Amtrak has outlived its usefulness

July 02, 2002|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - The scene is a staple of silent movies and TV cartoons - a damsel tied to the railroad tracks as a train comes hurtling around the bend, while the hero races to free her in time. But this time, there's a twist: It's the people running the trains who have bound the victim.

Amtrak, the federally funded national passenger railroad, was put on notice in 1997 that it had to achieve financial self-sufficiency by the end of 2002 or else be dismantled. But last year, it lost $1.1 billion. And Amtrak President David Gunn has suddenly discovered that the continuing losses are so big that unless it gets $200 million in extra funds soon, his operation will have to commence an "orderly shutdown."

The shutdown he has in mind looks anything but orderly: It could strand hundreds of thousands of commuters whose trains ride on tracks or use facilities owned by Amtrak.

This is not what we might have expected last September, when terrorists shut down the commercial aviation system and gave millions of Americans a powerful new incentive to give Amtrak a try.

In the days after Sept. 11, many trains were uncharacteristically packed. With air travel scarier and more time-consuming than before, Amtrak had a chance to secure a new base of customers looking for an alternate means of transportation.

But the surge of interest dissipated as quickly as it had formed. Travelers thoroughly considered everything Amtrak had to offer and reached the same conclusion they had been reaching for 30 years: No thanks.

As the airlines returned to something resembling normality, most of their customers came back. Those who were too nervous to fly either drove or stayed home.

Gilbert Carmichael, chairman of the federal Amtrak Reform Council, testified recently before Congress that from Sept. 11 to Dec. 31 of last year, Amtrak actually carried fewer passengers than in the same period of 2000.

That's in line with previous experience. Between 1990 and 2000, Amtrak ridership increased by only 1 percent - at a time when the number of passengers on commercial airlines rose by 43 percent. Never mind airlines: More Americans travel by private plane than by Amtrak.

They do so even though Amtrak customers have the luxury of paying fares that are much less than the cost of what they get.

On the Sunset Limited, which runs from Orlando to New Orleans and Los Angeles, Amtrak loses $347 per passenger - about twice what it would cost to buy each customer an airline ticket.

On the Pennsylvanian, between Chicago and Philadelphia, Amtrak will lay out $292 to spare you a $69 airfare.

No private company would beat its head against such unyielding realities year after year.

Amtrak's defenders, who never tire of inventing excuses for taxpayer support, now have a new one. "Amtrak has a vital homeland security role," according to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat.

"The railroad is a viable alternative to highways and airways."

But it proved to be an unpalatable option even after the worst terrorist acts in American history. If people wouldn't take the train after Sept. 11, when does Mr. Byrd imagine that they would? And there was no crying need for an alternative to highways, which stayed open for business after the attacks.

Those who favor a bigger federal commitment say the railroad has suffered from chronic penny-pinching even as Washington has provided generously for cars and airlines. In fact, the federal aid to other modes comes almost entirely out of user fees. Motorists pay the full cost of federal highway funding. Airlines get far less help, on a passenger-mile basis, than Amtrak. No one does less with a federal dollar than Amtrak.

The problem is not one that can be solved with spiffier cars or better food service. It stems from the inherent advantages of its competitors. Airlines are faster for long distances, cars are faster and more flexible for short distances, and both can be provided for less money. Outside of a few areas, such as the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, there aren't many places where a passenger railroad can compete.

So maybe it's time we stopped lavishing tax dollars on a form of transportation that has mostly outlived its usefulness. Amtrak is a bit like a gleaming antique automobile: We may enjoy the whiff of nostalgia it provides, but when it comes to getting where we want to go, nostalgia doesn't count for much.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.

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