How Congress Runs The Railroad

By Beacon Staff

In October 2008, Congress directed Amtrak to study adding more routes to Amtrak’s system. Among those routes were two for the Northwest, the Denver-Boise-Portland Pioneer, and a second Seattle-Chicago line, the North Coast Hiawatha (NCH) through Bismarck, Helena and Missoula on the old Northern Pacific. Amtrak’s 53-page NCH report makes interesting reading.

Amtrak’s current long-distance trains, not counting the unique Northeast Corridor and California’s special in-state network, cover about 51 percent of direct costs. Each dollar in fares requires the same in subsidy. Some trains, such as the Sunset Limited, cover only 24 percent, meaning every dollar in revenue is backed with $3 from taxpayers. The Empire Builder across the High Line is the “best”-performing conventional Amtrak train, covering 65 percent of its direct costs.

Reinstating the NCH requires $1.03 billion in start-up money, including $330 million for 18 locomotives and 54 sundry cars – which must be bought new because Amtrak already is suffering equipment shortages. Making 17 depots handicapped-accessible would cost about a million a pop. Track and signal work on “host railroads” would cost $617 million, with about half being spent on Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s old NP main in North Dakota.

Oh, don’t worry, Congress has already printed the money … setting aside $8 billion in the stimulus bill, and President Obama wants Congress to appropriate another $5 billion. But stimulus money cannot go toward operating losses, meaning money from other federal sources, or states/localities along the way, is necessary.

North Dakota “officials were very supportive of Amtrak service,” at least in part because they, (actually BNSF), would score $317-some-million in track and signal improvements, i.e., jobs. But from Fargo to Glendive, all the stops are Oh-Dark-Thirty AM. Ever stood in a North Dakota blizzard waiting for a late train? Actual riders might not be all that “supportive.”

The annual passenger count is expected to be 360,000, some 66,000 of which will be “robbed” (along with $8 million in fares) from the Empire Builder. That number raises two issues.

First, there are 5.7 million people in cities on the NCH route, but those totals include Seattle, the Twin Cities and Chicago (about 3.5 million), with oodles of transport choices. If everyone took a turn, we’d ride once every 30 years per round trip. Take the metro areas off the table, and the “rotation” is still 10 years…trivial in terms of overall travel, energy savings, convenience or any other selling point.

Second, the NCH would lose $31 million a year, plus “rob” $8 million from the Builder, a hit against Amtrak of $39 million, or $108 per rider. Add an annualized charge for the $1 billion start-up “investment” – which will have to be replaced in 20 years as staff retires and stuff breaks – that’s $50 million a year, minimum.

The bottom line for NCH service: $247 in taxpayer support per ticket. For a possible Pioneer: $260. Dude, give me the $247 and I’ll get Grandma to Seattle.

I guess that’s why Amtrak’s study is so interesting. All the players “support” a train. But the state officials along the way know any real benefits would be microscopic compared to costs, and they don’t want to be disemployed for directly wasting taxpayer money. ‘Tis better to lobby for a hidden earmark.

Unsurprisingly, the “supportive” North Dakota team claimed poverty and that “service should be funded with federal support.” Montana DOT director Jim Lynch and Senator Jon Tester also “stressed the importance of securing federal funding.”

Is this any way to run a railroad? Heck no, yet nobody has the guts to say this proposal is insupportable. Instead, we now begin the shameless political kabuki dance of getting Congress to steal other people’s money.

So, now you know how Congress runs its railroad.

But before you sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride, remember: They run our country like this, too.

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