Commentary: Amtrak – A Runaway Train

by Frank Mazurimages

Amtrak service to Montreal was promised by Gov. Shumlin back in 2011 and promoted by the Vermont Rail Action Network. Sen. Leahy said the service would be used by “relatives and friends on both sides of the border.” This is a dream for rail advocates as long as someone else pays the bill.

In 1958 the Interstate Commerce Commission wrote that passenger trains were destined to “take a place in the transportation museum along with the stagecoach, the side-wheeler and the steam locomotive.” Still, Congress insists on supporting an extensive nationwide system of passenger rail that doesn’t make economic sense. It runs trains that serve political purposes as opposed to being responsive to the marketplace. Studies show that routes that run less than 400 miles make money; routes with more miles post a loss. The former accounts for 83 percent of ridership; the latter 15 percent. However, the 15 percent, like the Ethan Allen and Vermonter routes, continue to exist because of congressional pressure.

Government has put $44 billion into Amtrak since inception thinking that it will eventually subsist on its own. However, it has lost money every year despite claims by bureaucrats and environmentalists that profitability was on the horizon. The reason why is politics.

The state passenger subsidy for FY16 is $7.75  million or $54 per passenger which reflects costly poor ridership.

This is evident in Vermont where the focus of environmentalists, activists and political progressives has been to preserve current routes and expand new service to Montreal. The state passenger subsidy for FY16 is $7.75 million or $54 per passenger which reflects costly poor ridership. This subsidy doesn’t include any capital expense like track maintenance or cost of rail cars. Increasing service to Montreal will only exacerbate the deficit per rider.

Nationally, the demographics served by long-term routes tend to be retirees who use it for recreational and leisure trips and does not show a need for taxpayer subsidies. Premium service like food cars most likely required for a Vermont/Montreal route would greatly contribute to the operating losses.

The business case for the Vermont/Montreal route shouldn’t give equal weight to geographic equality and economic efficiency. The only way to solve this runaway train that consumes huge subsidies with little return is to get politicians out of decision making and privatize Amtrak’s operation. Private operators would be able to continue routes that profitably serve passengers and they would most likely be more innovative in attracting new riders.

You get what you accept.

– Frank Mazur is a former state representative from South Burlington who served as chair of the House Transportation Committee. He is a former member of the EAI board of directors.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

jim bulmer July 1, 2015 at 8:58 pm

Shumlin promised and it didn’t happen? Well, golly what do you know? Is anyone really surprised? He’d say whatever you wanted to hear to get reelected.

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Don Boucher July 5, 2015 at 6:38 pm

As a former logistic manager , I am often surprised at the amounts of money wasted on projects that are not economically viable and serve a special interest group.

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