Amtrak is a tax-sucking behemoth that deserves to die

Amtrak supporters will be quick to point out that $8.4 billion over five years isn’t a big-ticket budget item in the context of the federal budget—maybe about what the Pentagon spends on copy room supplies. But compared to other modes of transit that partially cover their costs with gas taxes and user fees, Amtrak’s subsidies are off the charts, according to Bob Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation. Poole cites a 2004 federal study showing that Amtrak received subsidies of $186 per thousand passenger miles, as compared to airlines, which got $6, and highways, which generated excess revenue.

The Brookings report labels long-distance boondoggles like the Southwest Chief the “geographical equity portion” of Amtrak’s network, and lays out a case for even more support from states to sop up their immense losses. The concept of “equity” implies that rail is some sort of public good, like clean water and education, when it’s actually just one of many competing ways of getting from one place to another. Spreading rail services out among sparsely populated states may help win Amtrak support in Congress, but is that what’s best for the riding public?

If these services were to disappear tomorrow, it would have almost zero effect on the U.S. transit network, as Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole argues in a recent paper. The average American logs about 15,000 miles per year by car, 1,800 miles by plane, and only 20 miles on an Amtrak train of any sort. Amtrak accounts for about 0.36 percent of total intercity passenger travel in the U.S. For the small number of people too scared to board an airplane and incapable of driving, the rapidly growing intercity bus industry offers a cheaper, unsubsidized, and more environmentally friendly alternative.