Friday, September 29, 2006

Propping Up Amtrak

I am generally against government subsidies. To me, most of them make no sense and the free market will normally balance things out the way they should be. One of the subsidies which bothers me the most is how the Federal government props up Amtrak. One of the senators from my state (Kay Baily-Hutchison) is a major supporter of Amtrak. Once in a while she'll go on the stump, going on about how important passenger rail is to Texas despite the fact that most people who travel fly or drive.

There is no arguing that rail was a big part of Texas history. Texas is so vast, rail was a key component in its modernization. Many towns and cities owe their very existance to the railroads. However, I believe the time for long haul passenger rail for Texas, and, indeed most of the rest of our great nation, is long past. In this day and age, air travel makes a lot more sense.

I recently found a web page which compared auto, plane and train travel by cost, time and how much pollution each one purportedly generates. I thought it would be a good idea to do a little comparing myself to see if Amtrak is really a good value.

I "booked" myself on line 4 fictious trips from Dallas to Chicago, one on Amtrak, one on American Airlines (using their web site), one on Southwest Airlines (again, using their site) and one on Hotwire.com. Each trip used the same dates, two weeks in advance, going with the lowest fair without using promotion codes or other discounts. The results were very interesting.

The Amtrak run cost $204 and the travel time is 22 hours.
The AA run cost cost $204 with a travel time of 2.5 hours.
The Southwest run (code share with ATA) cost $197 with 3 hours of travel time.
I could book on Hotwire from $184 to $231. (Hotwire doesn't show the details until you pick the flight, though I think it's safe to assume the travel time will be between 2.5 and 3 hours if it's a non-stop (tack on a couple more hours if a stop is in the plan).

Cost isn't as much of a factor as I thought it might be. A few years ago I was looking into taking Amtrak on a day trip with my kids. As I recall the price was almost twice what the plane fare would have been and it would have been faster to drive.

Time is a huge factor here. 3 hours versus 22 is a very large difference. All other things aside, it really doesn't make sense to take the train.

The current governor of Texas, Rick Perry, and some other politicians want to create a giant travel corridor from south to north Texas about a mile wide which they call the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC). This project involves billions of dollars, is controlled via secret contracts with a European company, and will end up being a huge land grab and eminent domain nightmare if it's implemented. One of the provisions is for the TTC to include high-speed rail service in addition to toll roads and cargo rail. There isn't enough passenger service on Amtrak now for it to pay for itself, what makes the supporters of TTC think there will be more passengers if the plan goes into effect?

Passenger rail makes a lot of sense in the Northeast and in other places where large cities are closer together. It doesn't make sense in Texas and much of the rest of the US because it's too slow. I say we get Amtrak off the government dole and let the free market take care of where rail works and where it doesn't.

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