Politics & Policy

The Shameful Rush to Blame the Amtrak Crash on our ‘Infrastructure Crisis’

The scene in Philadephia on May 12. (Getty Images)

First responders had not finished combing the wreckage of Tuesday night’s Amtrak derailment for bodies when the liberal outlet Vox posted:

Alarming headline, exploitative disaster photo. The only thing missing is a picture of a grinning Ted Cruz.

The response to last night’s deadly Amtrak wreck in Philadelphia prompts two observations.

First — and this seems important — we don’t yet know what caused the derailment. An investigation is under way. Sources tell the Wall Street Journal that the train was traveling more than 100 mph — more than twice the speed limit — as it entered the curve where it derailed. But the bottom line is, we don’t know what happened.

SLIDESHOW: Amtrak Derailment in Philadelphia

Yet ThinkProgress is currently flogging a piece entitled “Why You Can’t Talk about the Amtrak Derailment Without Talking about Our Infrastructure Crisis.” Of course you can. And you should. Until an investigation uncovers evidence that unsound infrastructure was a contributing factor in the crash, it would be irresponsible to speculate. Unless (to Jonah Goldberg’s point) you’re less interested in the tragedy itself than in exploiting it for political gain.

Second, there is no self-evident connection between Amtrak funding and last night’s wreck. To make that link, you have to make several assumptions:

1. The relevant infrastructure was in disrepair, so much so that it created dangerous conditions.

2. That infrastructure contributed to the crash.

3. Amtrak did not have enough money in its budget to repair or update its infrastructure.

4. Had it had enough money, it would have done so.

5. Had it done so, the crash would not have happened.

None of those assumptions is obviously true. And more to the point, Amtrak’s history of fiscal chaos suggests that the service’s problems are not the product of congressional stinginess, but of a faulty assumption (that America needed a passenger rail service) compounded by decades of mismanagement.

RELATED: Hey, How’s America’s Rail Security Doing?

Since it started operations in 1971, the company has been heavily dependent upon federal aid. Eggheads predicted that Amtrak would break even in three years. It has never broken even, let alone turned a profit, and it doesn’t expect to: “Amtrak will never be profitable,” Amtrak’s then-president David Gunn told a Senate committee in 2002.

Amtrak’s history of fiscal chaos suggests that the service’s problems are not the product of congressional stinginess.

Some have objected that to suggest Amtrak should turn a profit is misguided. After all, haven’t airlines received subsidies? Yes, but the start-up subsidies that helped get domestic airlines off the ground have been paid back, and in 1978 the federal government effectively demanded domestic airlines fly or fail on their merits by deregulating the industry. The result was a wave of closures — and cheaper travel for passengers. Would Amtrak survive without the government’s largesse? Not a chance.

Amtrak has devoured about $40 billion in federal subsidies throughout its lifetime, according to the Cato Institute. By the 2000s, the rail line was losing approximately $1 billion a year — or about the amount of its annual subsidy. Yet not only has the federal government subsidized Amtrak to the tune of about $1.4 billion annually since 2009; the line received an additional $1.3 billion as part of the stimulus package.

What accounts for the losses? It’s not just a tiny ridership (about 30 million annually) and lightly traveled long-distance routes (routes that serve 15 percent of riders account for 80 percent of losses, according to the Government Accountability Office). The vast majority of Amtrak’s 20,000-employee workforce is unionized, which is why as of 2010 the average Amtrak employee earned $91,000 in wages and benefits. In a March 2014 letter to employees, Amtrak president Joseph Boardman noted that “Amtrak’s total payroll (including all benefits and taxes) is 93.6 percent of Amtrak’s ticket revenue. The company cannot sustain this level of payroll or overtime going forward.”

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Nor is it just obvious expenses. “According to audits by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, and the railroad’s own inspector general, Amtrak loses about $80 million a year selling food,” the New York Times wrote in August 2012. “Since 2002, Amtrak’s food service has lost $834 million.” The culprits? “Waste, employee theft and lack of proper oversight.” Of that $80 million, up to $7 million annually is stolen by Amtrak employees.

And add to that other typical bureaucratic abuses, such as bogus overtime claims.

Amtrak proponents acknowledge that it depends on government largesse, but they argue that passenger rail is necessary to a flourishing America — and if the government has to prop it up, so be it.

At the Freakonomics blog in 2012, where several economists and transportation experts took up the question of Amtrak’s fiscal lopsidedness, UCLA scholar Eric Morris addressed this argument:

It isn’t hard to see what accounts for Amtrak’s failing to come anywhere close to covering its costs. Americans are not crying out in agony due to a lack of transportation options, and, simply put, passenger rail doesn’t have much to recommend it compared to the competition. On longer-distance trips, flight is vastly faster. The car isn’t much slower, is fairly inexpensive (particularly with multiple passengers, common on intercity trips), and provides far greater convenience, including door-to-door service and the use of a car when the traveler arrives at the destination. Intercity buses also aren’t much slower than Amtrak, are vastly cheaper, and aren’t that much less comfortable once they are on the highway. In terms of passenger transport, trains are a 19th century technology that we are attempting to apply to a 21st century problem.

It is no secret that Amtrak has relied on the federal coffers throughout its lifetime. The question is whether there is any pressing need for the government to continue throwing away $1 billion each year for a service that accounts for 0.1 percent of America’s annual passenger travel. The simple answer is: No.

And to those keen to exploit last night’s tragedy: Spending more money to prop up a service that has proven it cannot operate effectively would hardly seem like the best way to keep passengers safe.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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