Amtrak was supposed to be a profit-making enterprise but would receive government subsidies, uh, just temporarily. It's still getting them 42 years later.
One reason is that Congress insists on passenger service in 46 of the 50 states. The long lines are huge money-losers, but if Amtrak cuts off service to Havre, Mont., someone will complain -- and get loads of publicity from the passenger-train lobby.
Amtrak is also saddled with union restrictions and procurement rules that mean that it loses money when it charges captive customers $15 for a hamburger.
Amtrak claims to make money on three lines in the Northeast, where population densities and travel distances make passenger trains a natural. But, curiously, it counts maintenance as a capital expenditure not an operating cost.
Amtrak has been attracting Washington-New York passengers who used to take airplane shuttles. But it's losing customers to private sector Chinatown buses with much lower fares and better Wi-Fi.
Barack Obama and 36-year Amtrak passenger Joe Biden want government to double down and build high-speed rail lines across the country.
"Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city," Obama said in April 2009. "Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation and ending up just blocks from your destination."
The problem is most Americans live in suburbs, not central cities, and most destinations are not just blocks from public transportation.
The Obama administration is pumping money into California's lunatic high-speed rail project, whose estimated cost has jumped from $40 billion to $100 billion -- for a line between the metropolises of Fresno and Bakersfield.
That's nutty. And so may be the private investors who are trying to build Houston-Dallas and Miami-Orlando high-speed lines.
But they're betting their own money, with strong incentives to meet competition and squeeze out cost.
Just like the people who made freight rail work.
Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (www.washingtonexaminer.com), is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. To find out more about Michael Barone, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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