Amtrak left taxpayers stranded with a $1.4 billion bill last year, and it’s going to cost even more to keep government-run rail alive this year. Instead of looking for ways to cut back to attain profitability or just improve the notoriously late, slow and underwhelming service, Amtrak’s CEO proposed on Wednesday to buy a set of electric trains (not the toy kind) to make his request for another 130 mostly ordinary rail cars more politically correct.
Uncle Sam chips in about $55 each time someone buys an Amtrak ticket. Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney said if he’s elected, he would end that practice by privatizing Amtrak. It’s a move that should have left the station years ago.
The former Massachusetts governor wants to scale back federal government programs we can’t afford, including the money-losing railroad. “There’s a long list of programs many people like,” Mr. Romney told the Des Moines Register editorial board earlier this month. “Some of those I like myself. But the test for me is, is this program so critical that it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?”
He applied this philosophy to trains in a November speech, explaining, “I like Amtrak, but I’m not willing to borrow $1.6 billion a year from China to pay for it.” Even though Amtrak is supposed to make a profit, 41 of its 44 routes lost money. It’s time to derail this gravy train.
President Obama disagrees and wants to burn even more money on rail, but the Republican-led House of Representatives stopped him in his tracks. The White House budget last year demanded a whopping $6.6 billion increase for the Federal Railroad Administration as a key element of its anti-automobile agenda. In the final transportation bill for fiscal 2012, rail got an additional $326 million, but the loot came with some GOP policy baggage.
Amtrak is barred from padding an employee’s salary with overtime costs in excess of $35,000 (unless that poses a risk to the safety and operational efficiency). Also, federal funds may not be used on routes where Amtrak offers a discount of 50 percent or more off normal peak fares. The idea is to force private competition on the lines where Amtrak is already failing.
House conservatives didn’t allow a penny to be wasted on high-speed rail, the conductor in chief’s favorite high-priced ticket item. Last year, Mr. Obama announced he wanted $53 billion over six years to build a national high-speed rail system with the goal of ensuring 80 percent of Americans have access to a federal choo-choo. As our national debt worsens, Mr. Obama just keeps rolling along.
Private companies could take over the in-demand Northeast corridor lines, get them running on time, make fewer stops, provide better amenities and likely turn a profit. As Mr. Romney said this month in the farm state of Iowa, “Amtrak ought to stand on its own feet, or its own wheels.” It’s time for the government to jump the tracks on the losing rail business.
Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times.