The Trump administration plans to dump about half of Amtrak’s $1.4 billion annual taxpayer subsidy by ending long-haul passenger services that cost taxpayers about $298 per round-trip and whose on-time performance is as low as 6 percent.
Amtrak carried a record 31.3 million passengers in 2016, the San Francisco Chronicle notes. But the subsidy to carry about 85 percent of those passengers on short-haul commuter runs, such as the Capitol Corridor — which runs from Sacramento to Oakland and San Jose — was $700 million, or $50.98 per round-trip. The taxpayer subsidy to carry the other 15 percent of Amtrak passengers on long-haul trips was also $700 million, or a stunning $298.19 per round-trip.
Amtrak was founded in 1971 to take over longer-haul U.S. passenger rail services, with a supposedly for-profit business model that would operate 200 trains to pic -up passengers at 500 stations to service 46 of the 48 continental states (except Wyoming and South Dakota).
Amtrak promised that for about $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies over its first 5 years, the company could become self-sufficient and profitable. But after 46 years and almost $60 billion in subsidies, Amtrak operates 300 trains and continues to lose more money each year, according to the Mercatus Center.
Amtrak’s main competitors for intermediate and long-haul trips are commercial airlines, which have an average cruising speed of about 550 miles per hour, according to MIT. But federal regulators limit most Amtrak long-haul passenger trains to a maximum speed of 80 miles per hour. The exceptions are Northeast Corridor commuter trains, which are allowed a top speed of 125 miles per hour, and the Acela express train, which are allowed to travel up to 150 miles per hour.
The Amtrak’s massive disadvantage in speed is compounded by its abysmal 60 percent average on-time arrival performance. Commuter runs average about 75 percent on-time arrival, but long hauls only average about 50 percent on-time performance. Northern California’s Capitol Corridor is Amtrak’s best performer, with 90.9 percent on-time arrival. But the worst performer is the Amtrak Crescent, which runs from New York to New Orleans and averages just 6.5 percent on-time arrival.
That compares to the top 10 U.S. commercial airlines, which average about 82 percent on-time arrival, according to OAG Aviation International. More importantly, JetBlue, with the worst airline performance average of 78.3 percent on-time arrival, is still over 20 percent higher than the Amtrak system’s average.
The Trump administration knows that dumping Amtrak’s long-haul services would shrink its network to serving just 23 states. At that point, it would put real political pressure on Amtrak and its 20,000 unionized employees to merge with heavily unionized East Coast city and state-run commuter rail services.
That would leave California to decide what to do with its $79 billion California High Speed Rail boondoggle that has built less than a mile of its proposed 800-mile statewide network, according to the official Build HSR California website. Despite voter passage of Proposition 1A in 2008 having generated $10 billion in tax revenues and another $8.7 billion in federal grants, the money has been mostly spent, and the project is still mired in 454 eminent domain right-of-way lawsuits.