Amtrak: Hardly derailed

Amtrak: Hardly derailed

If Illinois subsidies to Amtrak disappeared tomorrow, barely anyone would notice a difference.

Update: Gov. Bruce Rauner announced on June 12 a reduction in state funding for Amtrak, effective July 1.

To close the state’s $6.6 billion budget gap, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed to cut the budgets for many state agencies, including agriculture, children and family services, natural resources, human services, state police and transportation.

But the press has most recently been buzzing about a proposed reduction in state support to Amtrak to $28.8 million in 2016 from $46.2 million in 2015. Amtrak supporters are outraged, claiming that a reduction in passenger train service will increase traffic congestion, air pollution, and wear and tear on the highways.

Though passenger trains were once an important part of Illinois life, today they are an outdated and rarely used mode of transportation.

The average Illinois resident travels more than 15,000 miles a year. How many of those miles are traveled on state-supported Amtrak trains? Based on Amtrak’s 2014 performance report, less than 25 miles. Fewer than 5,500 people – not all of them Illinois residents – took a trip on one of these trains on a typical day in 2014.

Ticket revenues from these trains totaled $48.4 million in 2014. This means the $41.5 million in state subsidies that year were nearly as great as the fares paid by the riders themselves. Add more than $10 million in federal subsidies and the total is greater than the fares. Yes, other forms of transportation get subsidies, but not for more than half the cost.

Fares paid by riders of Illinois’ state-supported trains in 2014 averaged about 16 cents per passenger mile, while the trains required more than 17 cents per passenger mile in subsidies. By comparison, fares paid by riders of regular trains in Amtrak’s Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor averaged 48 cents per mile. This doesn’t even count fares paid by riders of the high-speed Acela trains, which averaged 87 cents per passenger mile.

The Northeast Corridor trains are not really profitable when capital and maintenance costs are counted, but they don’t require any operating subsidies. Why should Illinois trains be any different? If Illinois train riders aren’t willing to pay 48 cents per mile, why should Illinois taxpayers subsidize their rides?

If Illinois subsidies to Amtrak disappeared tomorrow, hardly anyone would notice a difference. Highway users might see a few extra Megabuses on the road, but would find no measurable increase in congestion.

Speaking of Megabus, that company has service from Chicago to 30 other cities every day. It receives no direct subsidies from anyone, yet has lower fares and in some corridors offers faster and more frequent service than Amtrak. If not Megabus, then some other bus company would quickly fill in any gaps left by an end to Amtrak service.

It is the burden of those who think Illinois should keep subsidizing these trains to propose exactly how to fund that subsidy. More cuts to children’s services? Schools? State pension funds? Or should the state raise taxes by nearly $4 for every resident of Illinois to subsidize train rides most of them will never take?

Instead of insisting on subsidies, why not just increase fares to cover the real costs of riding the trains? If the trains are really so worthwhile to their riders, then they should be happy to pay 40 cents per mile, which is less than fares in the Northeast Corridor but more than enough to cover all of the costs of operating the Illinois Amtrak trains that now get state support.

Image credit: Loco Steve

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