Wasteful spending at Amtrak has skyrocketed due to legislation backed by the Biden administration. The spending will make it harder to transport goods by rail, reports Bloomberg News, so instead of being carried by rail, goods will be transported more expensively by truck on congested roads, resulting in more air pollution and traffic jams.
The legislation mandates a “human ticket agent at a station selling 41 tickets per DAY!!! Incredible,” says a disgusted investment banker who funds transportation projects. “It’s like the whole goal” of Biden’s policies is “to reduce productivity” and create pointless busywork, he says. “But the whole basis of economic progress is a smaller number of people working more efficiently to do all the existing jobs while the balance of the labor force does new things, making the pie bigger.” Biden’s policies thwart such progress.
The editors of Bloomberg News explain that a Biden-backed infrastructure law
allots $66 billion to rail, or about $4,000 for every passenger that Amtrak carried last year. Not coincidentally, the government-owned colossus recently unveiled a vast new expansion plan that would add 39 new routes and bring service to 160 new communities….it’s actually throwing good money after bad. Amtrak has been reliably bleeding cash since 1971….Even the relatively profitable Northeast Corridor line necessitates a government subsidy to cover capital costs, while most other routes are simply nonviable economically. In particular, long-distance trips account for 15% of Amtrak’s total ridership and 80% of its financial losses.
It’s hard to see how adding dozens of stops — to such modish locales as Rockland, Maine — will improve matters. All those new routes will need maintenance and repairs in perpetuity. Most will need more personnel (“an estimated 26,000 permanent jobs,” Amtrak says). All of them will likely require subsidies. The people of Rockland may welcome the train coming to town. Yet Congress could buy every local household an electric car for about $98 million, a comparative steal.
Expanding passenger rail doesn’t just burden the federal budget. It could also harm the broader economy. On most of its routes, Amtrak pays private freight carriers for access to their tracks. Because passenger trains are (by law) given preference on these routes, they’re likely to slow down the nation’s freight network and hence raise shipping costs. Because they may require improvements (such as longer sidings or safety upgrades), they can also entail huge upfront costs. Amtrak’s proposal to restart its Gulf Coast line could require as much as $1.3 billion, according to a report commissioned by the Florida Department of Transportation — for a service that might carry a few hundred passengers a day, on what one local politician called a “joyride for the affluent.”
You might still argue that passenger-rail expansion is necessary on environmental grounds. But this, too, fails a cost-benefit test. Displacing freight rail means more cargo will likely be carried by trucks, which produce perhaps 10 times more carbon per ton-mile. Moreover, Amtrak’s trains outside of the northeast are diesels, which emit about 167 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger-mile, not much better than planes (174grams) — and that’s before any construction is factored in. Even on optimistic assumptions, a decades-long expansion of passenger rail is a grossly inefficient way to fight climate change. In fact, the infrastructure bill almost seems designed to maximize inefficiency. It specifically prohibits Amtrak from reducing service on unprofitable rural routes. It requires human ticket agents at every station that serves more than 40 passengers a day…Amtrak may never be profitable, but it should try to cut its losses. Congress should prevent any expansion of long-haul boondoggles and focus on shoring up the Northeast Corridor — which has a maintenance backlog exceeding $38 billion — and other viable intercity services.
Trains are just not convenient for most passengers. Mass transit carries fewer than 3 percent of all commuters to work, even in the nation’s 50 largest urban areas, a percentage that continues to fall despite rising spending on mass transit.
In addition to the wasteful infrastructure law Biden signed, Biden had also proposed a larger $2.5 trillion infrastructure plan. That plan would subsidize obsolete technologies, and reduce private investment in infrastructure and other fixed assets by $1 trillion. It would also harm private infrastructure such as power stations, freight railways, and pipelines. The Biden administration recently proposed spending billions of dollars on a rail station operating at less than half its capacity.
By prioritizing passenger rail at the expense of freight rail, Biden-backed legislation undermines the goal of energy conservation. As businessman Warren Meyer notes:
The U.S. rail system is optimized for freight, vs. European and Japanese systems that are optimized for passengers (it is hard to do both well with the same network). The U.S. situation is actually better, much better, for energy conservation. I wrote in detail about this before:
First, consider the last time you were on a passenger train. Add up the weight of all the folks in your car. Do you think they weighed more or less than the car itself? Unless you were packed into a subway train with Japanese sumo wrestlers, the answer is that the weight of the car dwarfs that of the passengers it is carrying. The average Amtrak passenger car apparently weighs about 65 tons (a high speed rail car weighs more). The capacity of a coach is 70-80 passengers, which at an average adult weight of 140 pounds yields a maximum passenger weight per car of 5.6 tons. This means that just 8% of the fuel in a passenger train is being used to move people — the rest goes into moving the train itself.
Now consider a freight train. The typical car weighs 25-30 tons empty and can carry between 70 and 120 tons of cargo. This means that 70-80% of the fuel in a freight train is being used to move the cargo.