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OPINION - Amtrak, micro-managed

by Chris Conley

Im on vacation. Todays blog comes from Train 30, the eastbound Capitol Limited en route to Washington DC. We're rolling through western Maryland now.

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) The rumors are true about more Amtrak cutbacks. Our dining car is indeed staffed by only three people: a cook, a waiter, and a supervisor who also waits tables. At breakfast, with only half the tables full, they had to hustle to keep up. If we were travelling westbound and were expecting dinner with a full load, we'd be waiting a long time for our food.

You can debate the merits of whether the U.S. Government should be in the railroad business. We certainly are in the highway business; road funding is generous and bipartisan. And no airline would ever get off the ground without the government paying for its infrastructure: air traffic control, terminals, runways, security.

But no other mode of transportation is micromanaged by Congress -- which seems ineffective at managing anything -- like Amtrak. There are congressional bills that manage Amtrak's sleeping car pricing, dining car losses, ticket pricing, route schedules, long term planning, and capital investments. And all of this is stupid.

Here are a few examples: Long distance trains are money losers. That's why Amtrak was created, to relieve private freight railroads of the losses of their passenger services. Now the wise sages on Capital Hill argue that there should be limits on how much the taxpayers subsidize the cost of a ticket. So these days Amtrak can no longer offer deep-discount fares on trains that aren't sold out. They lose ticket revenue and have empty seats because of congressional oversight. It's worse with Amtrak sleeping cars, which, by congressional fiat cannot operate at a loss. So during non-peak travel seasons I have to overpay for my compartment because there's no pricing elasticity that could be used to fill the empty room across the hall. And, of course, once the train pulls out of the station with unsold space -- the revenue is zero dollars.

Amtrak buys equipment that doesn't work correctly because Congress mandates that new trains must be made in the U.S.A. The Acela's tilt-technology doesn't work because it was never properly debugged; prefectly vetted high-speed trains from Germany and Sweden were eschewed because they aren't "American".

My can of diet Pepsi costs $2.50 in Amtrak's snack car because Congress even has regulations concerning food service losses on Amtrak. Serving food on a 17-hour trip from Chicago to Washington isn't seen as a necessity, but as a matter for regulation. A government that runs a $3-trillion annual deficit is arrogant enough to regulate the price of a soft drink.

Suppose that this level of oversight was applied to other modes of transportation. Central Wisconsin Airport, on some non-peak days, loads less than 100 passengers. Suppose Congress were to construct a cost-per-passenger formula for airport terminal and runway construction. The airport would disappear, and with it our aviation link to the outside world. There are many highways that see fewer than 1,000 cars a day. If there were a toll offset to cover federal paving grants, you'd pay $10 each time you drove on U.S. 8.

And while highway and aviation spending is massive, Amtrak spending is tiny: $1.4-billion a year. To put that in perspective, President Obama asked for $4-billion to house and feed illegal immigrant children at our southern border. The Pentagon spends about as much on transportation for its military bands and honor guard units as we do for Amtrak. Congress would never dream of debating a mythical 'No Navy Sea Chanters Concerts West of the Rockies' bill; yet weve held full hearings on the costs of the microwave hamburgers Ill be eating for lunch today.

An elected representative who thinks they can micromanage a railroad lacks the common sense I'd expect for the office they hold.

Chris Conley