Over at The Points Guy there have been several articles promoting train travel – and in particular travel travel public policy – and they’re really odd. For instance laying out arguments for greater government spending on trains featuring the views of the head of the Rail Passenger Association, a lobbying group that promotes subsidies for Amtrak, and promoting the environmental benefits of train travel pushing such odd white elephants as California high speed rail between Merced and Bakersfield (trains that don’t attract riders are not good for the environment, since per capita emissions are high).
Let’s be clear, train travel can be great. It makes a lot of sense between densely populated urban centers situated close together. That’s why it’s successful in Europe, in Japan, and the Northeast.
It makes a whole lot less sense for,
- Slow travel over long distances
- Travel between small population centers, because only irregular service or limited schedules can be sustained
In many cases low emission buses can make a lot more sense, since they don’t come with the same capital intensive up front investment requirements, it’s easier to scale frequencies, and travel can be more direct.
TPG‘s Madison Blancaflor blames ‘car culture’ but that has things in some sense backwards. Because train service can support convenient travel between places people want to go, when they want to go, outside of dense city pairs situated close together cars make a lot of sense to consumers. Indeed, even in the Northeast, it’s great to travel by train from Washington, DC to Manhattan but not so great if you live in the DC exurbs.
Moreover blaming a lack of government support for railroads is odd. They quote the head of the train lobby shop, “any first-year freshmen student in economics will tell you that if you have something that’s subsidized competing with something that’s not subsidized, the subsidized thing is going to win.”
However Four of the five U.S. transcontinental railroads were literally funded through land grants – the federal government provided the land on which to build, and land that the railroads sold for financing.
Moreover complaining about highway subsidies in the 1950s being unfair to rail as the cause of today’s challenges is even more strange, since the Rail Passenger Association (then known as the National Association of Railroad Passengers) led the charge for passage of the 1970 Rail Passenger Service Act which effectively nationalized the train system into Amtrak, an entity whose board is appointed by government officials, and which has received over $50 billion in federal subsidies. This doesn’t count state support, or government money for projects like the new Moynihan train station in New York.
Just a year and a half ago Amtrak was pretending it could be profitable. Then it replaced former Delta CEO Richard Anderson at the helm, and we’re back to arguing that subsidies for Amtrak are what’s profitable for communities,
“There’s not a region of the country that would not benefit from additional or improved service,” said Mathews.
Thankfully, Congress is putting some money into improving and expanding train travel options in the U.S.
The Senate recently introduced a new bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes $36 billion in funding for rail projects. The reauthorization of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act includes billions of dollars in funding as well — both to be used over the next five years.
What’s the argument for this profitability?
The way I like to describe it is that passenger trains are kind of like freight trains for wallets,” said Mathews.
Someone who takes a train from one city to another isn’t just spending money on a train ticket. They’ll buy meals and souvenirs. They’ll stay at hotels, cabins or home rentals. They’ll purchase museum admission or theme park tickets, or pay other tourist attraction entrance fees. So not only are local businesses getting an influx of cash, but those places are hiring more workers, too, and improving the job market in those destinations.
Except… this same economic activity happens if people come by train or by car. This isn’t an argument for rail. It still comes back to whether train travel makes sense for a given journey, and whether the national subsidized rail corporation is best-situated to deliver that service.
Amtrak isn’t as safe as air travel. And travelers shouldn’t be subsidized out of the pockets of non-travelers. The argument that “airlines get subsidies too” is an argument for fewer subsidies not an excuse for more. Train travel has a role to play in certain places but isn’t a panacea. When TPG quotes the lobbyist that “there’s not a region of the country that would not benefit from additional or improved service” that’s just dumb.
So why the TPG-Railroad lobbyist push now? The Senate infrastructure package that passed last week contains $66 billion for rail, mostly to Amtrak. But there’s still very much live negotiations going on in the House. Don’t expect that $66 billion to give you high speed rail, or “additional or improved service” since Amtrak plans to spend most of the money on maintenance ($38 billion just in the Northeast corridor). It’s a shame the pieces do not explain this and instead frame investment in Amtrak as “more train routes”.