Four Reasons More Taxpayer Cash Won’t Solve Amtrak’s Problem

REUTERS/Mike Segar
REUTERS/Mike Segar

After Tuesday night’s catastrophic Amtrak derailment, resulting in the deaths of at least six people and injuries to more than 140 others, the political class has weighed in: we must spend more money on infrastructure.

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell informed MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “It’s a horrible crash and it just points out again how terrible our nation’s infrastructure is.” Justin Moyer at The Washington Post chimed in, saying, “While the cause of Tuesday’s derailment was still undetermined, the answer has a lot to do with America’s crumbling transportation infrastructure. … The United States’s disinterest in funding rail transportation is long-lamented.” Moyer noted that Amtrak is a “Republican punching bag.” Blake Hounshell of Politico tweeted:

Whether it is the failed war on poverty or the decades-old failure that is Amtrak, the solution always seems to be the same for the leftists in the media and politics: spend more taxpayer money (or, in Hounshell’s case, blame Republicans for failing to elevate spending in the future). That’s incredibly stupid, however, for several reasons.

America Does Not Need Passenger Trains. Despite the left’s endless fascination with trains – from Jerry Brown’s $100 billion fantasy choo-choo to Seattle’s obsession with its riderless light rail – America does not actually need passenger trains. A full 89 percent of all long-distance travel in the United States takes place by car; most of the rest comes by airplane. Even during the high-traffic holiday season, rail represents less than three percent of all travel in the United States. That’s largely thanks to America’s geography: as Megan McArdle of The Atlantic recognizes, “Trains make more sense for the densely populated Chinese cities than America’s more spread out metropolises.” Plus, as McArdle points out:

[T]he Chinese government does not have to worry unduly about things like environmental impact and acquiring the right of way.  For truly high speed rail, you need a long straightaway with few curves or inclines. That means it’s very important to lay the rail in the best possible path, or near it. Trying to do this between, say, New York and Chicago would mean approximately a century of court battles with homeowners, environmental groups, local NIMBYs, and sundry others. Moreover, many desirable routes are occupied by our enormous network of highways, and only someone with a very rich fantasy life could believe that we are going to rip out the highways to put in a rail network.

Our Trains Have a Good Safety Record. As the Huffington Post acknowledges, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has recognized a massive decrease in the number of train accidents over the past few years. From 2006 to 2014, the number of accidents dropped 42 percent, from 3,000 to 1,755, with derailments dropping from 2,197 to 1,241. That drop didn’t exclude Amtrak and commuter rail, which saw derailments drop from 76 to 54. In 2014, 226 people died on Amtrak and commuter railroads, but nearly all of those people were killed because they trespassed on train tracks, not because they died aboard trains.

A Huge Number of Train Crashes Are Caused by Human Error. Yes, mechanical failures sometimes cause derailments; just under half of derailments are due to track defects, according to the FRA. But another 28.7 percent can be attributed to human error. The rest, according to Jacob Leibenluft of, “were caused by mechanical problems with the train itself, signal failures, and miscellaneous factors ranging from vandalism to snow.” Would better infrastructure matter? Sure. But it is important to recognize that over half of crashes wouldn’t be stopped by spending billions more on underused passenger rail.

Amtrak Has Been Wasting Cash for Decades. Amtrak is privately owned but government subsidized. Like most such businesses, it is also wildly inefficient. In 2012, Amtrak required $1.4 billion in federal subsidies to keep running. (Amtrak loses about a quarter of the money the post office loses each year.). Merely by requiring states to take care of their own Amtrak costs within their borders, the feds could save $800 million per year. As John Nolte points out, Amtrak also favors the rich. Amtrak runs unprofitable routes (15 routes lose $600 million per year.) and pays unprofitable salaries simply because taxpayers foot the bill. Joe Biden may brag about riding Amtrak as though he is a regular Joe, but the truth is that regular Joes drive cars.

No, we don’t need to spend more money on Amtrak. We just need to stop subsidizing stupidity and charging passengers for the actual travel in which they participate.

Ben Shapiro is Senior Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News and author of the new book, The People vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against The Obama Administration (Threshold Editions, June 10, 2014). Follow Ben Shapiro on Twitter @benshapiro.


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