07.01.2011 0

Trains, Planes, and…Motorcoaches?

By Rebecca DiFede – In the wake of our looming debt ceiling and the millions of dollars wasted every year on Amtrak’s less-than-stellar service, Republicans in Congress have proposed that Amtrak be privatized so as to maximize not only revenue, but also efficiency.

Amtrak’s popular and lucrative Northeast Corridor route, running from Boston down to Washington, D.C., would be sold to the highest bidder and would give a company an opportunity to expand as the market dictated. According to the Wall Street Journal, several companies that manufacture Europe’s high speed trains are eyeing the prime piece of travel real estate like a pack of hungry dogs as they stand to engage in a bidding war in the hopes of future profits.

Since its creation in 1970, Amtrak has had more than its share of mishaps. Going beyond just chronic lateness and the uncanny ability to break down more often than a rusty Model T, Amtrak has an astonishing track record of hitting objects such as cars, trucks or people. While no system is perfect it would seem that Amtrak has failed to maintain a standard of even remotely satisfactory or reliable service, which is one of the many reasons they barely manage to turn a profit, despite being in charge of the most densely populated route in the country.

One downside of traveling with Amtrak that could be remedied by privatization is the high cost. For example, to travel from Washington, D.C., to New York City one way costs an average of $140, depending on what time you leave and whether or not the train is an Acela, Amtrak’s fleet of high-speed trains, which are more expensive. The biggest competitor to the comfortable yet pricey Amtrak trip are Delta and other flight shuttles that service the Northeast Corridor. Business travelers needing to make a round trip in a day could very easily take this route, without having to risk the threat of track issues or engine trouble. Although planes come with added wait time and various invasive Transportation Security Administration (TSA) inspections, this is a small inconvenience in exchange for cheaper fares.

Another route that is often forgotten about, but is relied on by college students and many tourists as the cheapest of all options is the bus route. A bus trip on any one of a number of private motorcoach companies that service the route of D.C. to New York (BOLT! Bus, Greyhound, megabus, Peter Pan, etc), you can make that same trip for as little as $15. And even if you book last minute, you won’t pay more than $25. Sure, some would say that a train or airplane offers more amenities, however these bus companies now come equipped with expanded leg room, outlets at every seat, and even free WiFi, and their travel times are extremely comparable.

The idea to create private bus routes was absolutely genius because they provide a competitive service for a fourth of the cost, and because buses are essentially autonomous (all that is needed is a driver, unlike a train which maintains a hefty amount of employees to run effectively), it is much easier to garner a profit because they have less expenses. Also, by traveling on local roads and highways they are more able to adapt to changes in weather or construction via detours, while trains are bound to their fixed track. However by the same token, trains are less likely to be delayed (assuming there are no weather or mechanical difficulties) because there is no traffic and the routes can be timed very accurately. Especially with the economic structure the way it is, they can corner a large portion of the market who only wants to go from point A to point B as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

If the Northeast Corridor route is privatized, it too can boast lower, more financially accessible prices. Also, the issues with crashes and break downs can be dealt with internally, rather than taking taxpayer dollars to pick up the slack where the government was negligent. Although the removal of the Northeast Corridor would likely dissolve Amtrak, that in itself is a good argument to go on with it because if the other routes don’t make enough to support themselves and rely on the profits from the Northeast Corridor to stay in service, why do they exist in the first place?

It is safe to say that the incentive to keep subsidizing Amtrak, when the only route that makes any money is being overrun by competitors, is officially gone. There is no reason to spend countless millions of dollars on a trip that can easily (and much more cheaply) be made by using a different method of transportation. Any way you travel you’re going to have to make sacrifices, but wasted taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be one of them.

Rebecca DiFede is a contributing editor to Americans for Limited Government (ALG).

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