Last week Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson signed into law HB 2552, which enacts the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. This act will promote improvements to passenger rail service and the development of plans for long-range high speed rail service in the Midwest, according to the governor’s press release.
“Passenger rail service in Kansas would create economic opportunities for the future, but the planning must begin now,” said Parkinson in a press release. “A strong public infrastructure system helps attract businesses and jobs to our state, and a high speed rail service is another piece in furthering our economic recovery. I am pleased to sign these two bills that will set the gears in motion for increased avenues of transportation in Kansas and the entire Midwest.”
The governor also signed SB 409, which authorizes the Kansas Secretary of Transportation to establish and implement a passenger rail service program in the state.
In Kansas, the Northern Flyer Alliance has promoted this legislation as a way to return passenger rail service to Kansas, specifically from Kansas City through Wichita to Oklahoma City and Fort Worth. It’s a bad idea. Any expansion of Amtrak, which is how this service would be implemented, is bad public policy.
Consider some of the recent history of Amtrak. In 2001, the Cato Institute Policy Analysis Help Passenger Rail by Privatizing Amtrak contained this in its summary:
Amtrak has failed to secure an increasing portion of America’s growing transportation market. It carries only about three-tenths of 1 percent of all intercity passengers. Its on-time performance on most routes is terrible, and it covers up this fact by measuring punctuality at a limited number of stops and building in lots of extra time before those stops.
Many of Amtrak’s trains run much more slowly today than did trains on the same routes earlier this century. Moreover, Amtrak uses creative accounting to disguise its financial problems. For example, Amtrak receives many subsidies from government agencies and has recently abandoned standard accounting practices to hide operating expenses as capital costs.
In the recent Cato Institute briefing paper High-Speed Rail Is Not “Interstate 2.0”, author Randal O’Toole provided this summary:
The administration has likened President Obama’s high-speed rail plan to President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System. Yet there are crucial differences between interstate highways and high-speed rail.
First, before Congress approved the Interstate Highway System, it had a good idea how much it would cost. In contrast, Congress approved $8 billion for high-speed rail without knowing the total cost, which is likely to be at least $90 billion.
Second, highway users paid for interstate highways, whereas high-speed rail will be almost entirely subsidized by general taxpayers who will rarely use it.
Third, interstate highways connect all 48 contiguous states and major metropolitan areas. The FRA’s high-speed rail plan consists of six unconnected networks that reach only 33 states and less than two-thirds of the nation’s 100 largest urban areas.
Fourth, the average American traveled 4,000 miles on interstates in 2007. High-speed rail proponents optimistically estimate that the average American would ride the FRA’s high-speed rail system less than 60 miles per year.
Finally, interstate highways improved social welfare by increasing highway safety. In contrast, far from saving energy and reducing pollution, high-speed rail would actually increase energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
For all these reasons, the United States government should not fund high-speed rail. The $8 billion in high-speed rail stimulus funds should be invested in safety improvements, not in new trains and new routes that will add to future taxpayer obligations.
Amtrak also has problems with transparency and accountability, and has troubles complying with provisions of the federal Inspector General Act. A recent investigation concluded: “… contrary to the requirements of the IG Act, the OIG’s independence at Amtrak has been diminished and threatened by recent policies and practices at Amtrak affecting OIG investigations and giving the appearance that OIG is subordinate to the Law Department. The involvement by the Law Department in OIG investigations both impermissibly and unnecessarily restricts the OIG’s access to document and information …”
Amtrak is a federal agency that should be disbanded immediately, not expanded.
In testimony before the Kansas House Transportation Committee on March 3, advocates for the Northern Flyer project gave several reasons for supporting it. One reason is that other states are getting federal money for similar projects, and Kansas residents are “donating to what other states will receive.” The point was made that fares will offset some of the operating expenses, but that this rail services will not be profitable. Rail should not be expected to operate without subsidy, proponents said. Many other forms of transportation are subsidized, too, and the amount of money spent on rail subsidy is small.
But when compared to other forms of transportation, rail is subsidized at a much higher rate. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2002, highway use was subsidized at the rate of negative $1.00 per thousand passenger miles. “Negative numbers show user charge payments to the federal government in excess of cost responsibility,” explains the report, meaning that highway drivers are subsidizing other forms of transportation.
Commercial aviation was subsidized at the rate of $6.18 per thousand passenger miles, with general aviation racking up subsidy at the rate of $91.42 (2001 figures.)
Railroad received $210.31 per thousand passenger miles. It’s a very expensive way to travel.