In a recent essay for Jalopnik, Jason Torchinsky explained: “I Took Amtrak Instead of Flying and It Made Me Want to Die a Little Bit.” I’ve taken Amtrak between Birmingham and New Orleans several times, and I will almost certainly do so again at some point in the future; however, Amtrak’s performance suggests that it’s time for taxpayer-subsidized rail service to go quietly into the night. To join the choir invisible. To cease to be.
In other words, it’s time to pull the plug on Amtrak—or at least the taxpayer subsidies that prop it up.
Why? First, as Torchinsky amply documents, the Amtrak experience is “meh” at best and positively awful at worst, especially when air travel is more convenient and at least competitive on price. I’ve only taken it between Birmingham and New Orleans, where it is a credible substitute for either driving or flying. Even then, the train takes half again as long as driving—about seven and a half as opposed to five hours—and that’s assuming everything operates on time. I can get a lot of work done on a train that I can’t get done while driving, and I hate driving. I can get a lot of work done on planes, though, and a quick search shows that I can get from Birmingham to New Orleans by plane in fewer than four hours even with a connection somewhere like Atlanta.
Even booking far in advance, the price of a plane ticket is still about twice what a coach seat on a train would be, but at the very least the plane trip would be much more reliable and predictable. I don’t think I’ve been on a train that both departed on time and arrived on time, and any airline with Amtrak’s absolutely dismal on-time performance probably wouldn’t last long.
Speaking of Atlanta, I’m headed there for a conference in a few weeks and just checked the Amtrak schedule. There is one train daily from Birmingham to Atlanta, and I’d have to cancel my Friday afternoon classes to take it. There is one train back from Atlanta to Birmingham, and I would miss about a third of the conference I’m attending if I were to take it. No thanks.
This doesn’t mean I’m driving myself. There are cheap substitutes for Amtrak for inter-city travel, as well, that don’t need federal subsidies to stay in operation. Greyhound and Megabus offer several trips to and from Atlanta every day. This answers the “what would people do?” question about how they would get around if they can’t fly for some reason and Amtrak were to disappear. Intercity bus service would likely expand to fill the gap.
Only one part of the Amtrak network is economically viable: the northeastern network linking Boston, New York, and Washington DC, where its Acela express train operates. The rest of Amtrak’s operation loses money, so much so that I recall the economist Antony Davies saying in a presentation once that it would be cheaper for Amtrak to simply buy plane tickets for everyone taking its LA to Orlando route and then not run the train at all.
What should happen to Amtrak? It should live or die by its own merits as tested by people’s willingness to part with their hard-earned money in the market rather than by its ability to wrangle subsidies from Congress. Most of Amtrak’s network would likely disappear, but that would be no great tragedy. Indeed, Americans would be richer for it.