EDITORIAL: Budget Buster Express

Members of Congress must feel a bit shortchanged by the amount of playtime they received during childhood. Their ongoing fascination with one of the world’s most expensive model-train sets, Amtrak, otherwise defies explanation. Politicians continue to treat the heavily subsidized operation more like a prized toy than a solid business operation. The time has come to stop shoveling money into this runaway choo-choo.

Congress allocated nearly $10 billion to shore up Amtrak over the next five years, plus $1.3 billion in “stimulus” funding intended to make up for decades of deferred maintenance. Even these sizable amounts fall short of the rail giant’s claimed need for $20 billion to clear a backlog of essential projects.

Proudly wearing the conductor’s hat, Congress is having too much fun to worry about numbers. Legislators routinely reject the most common-sense of reforms, including an amendment by Rep. Pete Sessions, Texas Republican, that would have kept taxpayer dollars from footing the bill on Amtrak’s least profitable route. A real business subject to market pressures would not hesitate to optimize operations. Amtrak, on the other hand, demonstrates what happens when there is no incentive for efficiency.

Its passenger-ticket revenue amounts to just $2 billion annually, forcing federal taxpayers to come up with another $1 billion to meet bloated payrolls and subsidize frequent travelers such as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. For the rest of America, trains remain an unrealistic transportation option, accounting for a mere one-third of 1 percent of all passenger miles traveled.

Still, Congress retains nostalgia for a mode of transport that made sense when the only competition consisted of wagon trains and steamer ships. Train travel today just can’t compare to the comfort and convenience of a modern automobile for shorter-haul trips. And, despite the best efforts of the Transportation Security Administration to make flying a miserable experience, airplanes still can’t be beat on the longer routes.

A Washingtonian seeking to escape the winter in Orlando, Fla., could choose a 34-hour round-trip train ride for $220. It is more likely, however, that he would select a pair of two-hour flights for about $40 less.

That’s the kind of sensible economic decision families around the country are making during this recession. Shouldn’t Amtrak also have to make a few tough choices? Yet, instead of reining in the bloated rail bureaucracy, the Obama administration wants more.

Not content to share with his congressional peers, President Obama has been spending our money to create his own real-life train set. Mr. Obama’s 2011 budget added $1 billion on top of the $8 billion in stimulus funding as a “down payment” on the creation of a shiny new high-speed locomotive program. While the concept of rapid and convenient travel between cities has a superficial appeal, we’ve been down this track before. There is no reason to think the rebooted version of the franchise will be any less of a financial wreck. Amtrak and its high-speed imitators have got to go.

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