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Monday, October 22. 2012
Amtrak has around 20,000 employees with an average income of $90,000. I thought that the government takeover of passenger rail had been meant to be a temporary rescue measure, but I guess I was wrong.
Now I am not sure why passenger rail should be viewed any differently from the also-government-supported interstate highway system, or government-supported airports, but Clark Whelton claims Amtrak is a jobs program on wheels.
Where should one draw the line on taxpayer support of life amenities? I must confess that the high-speed Boston-Providence-NYC-Philly-Baltimore-DC Acela service is a very fine and heavily-used amenity for those in the Northeast corridor, as are the New York area commuter trains.
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Average salary of $90K, WOW!!! That's an average. That seems obscenely high. That includes all the manual type jobs like the porters, baggage handlers, clerical support in the depots. Either they're also getting paid quite handsomely, likely, or management is making a freaking fortune, also likely. When not confronted with the realities of competition there is just no natural check on cost.
The high speed trains are a bit pricey, I think, and not that much faster Boston to NYC. If I was headed to DC I'd take a plane and connect by bus at both ends. The commuter trains are useful if you are going into a parking deprived zone, but I notice that even the LIRR only carries a fraction of the folks headed to work in the city.
"If I was headed to DC I'd take a plane and connect by bus at both ends."
Time is money. Take your own plane and have a limo meet you at both ends.
In 1993, the net federal subsidy to general aviation (so that you would have runways and ATC for your private jet) was 13 cents per Passenger-Mile, as compared to the subsidy for intercity rail which was 14 cents.
Thanks! You'll save us taxpayers a penny!
Read somewhere recently, that Amtraks' food and beverage service has been a consistent fiscal train wreck over the past decade. Time to stick in vending machines or let the commuters brown-bag it!
Hard to make money when the service staff is making $90 freakin' K!!!
I'm reminded of the closing point in Westwood's Soviet Railways Today (1963), in which he noted that in any discussion of this sort, there are three realities which must be kept in mind: 1.) what is planned to happen, 2.) what is said to happen, and 3.) what actually happens. Much of the discussion of Amtrak, particularly, and Federal transportation policy, generally, tends to be more second reality. Last I saw (about two years ago), Amtrak was recovering about $0.61 in user fees of every $1.00 it cost to operate the system. At the same time, the Federal highway program (according to their own statistics) was recovering a bit over $0.50; so your question about why Amtrak should be treated differently from the highway program is a good one, but one that is unlikely to be raised in any substantive form, given that the various Federal programs were developed in separate stovepipes at separate times. If you are interested in a substantive discussion of Amtrak and passenger trains generally, you might want to check the webpage of the United Rail Passenger Alliance, with whom I have no affiliation. I've found their material to be very interesting reading.
About two years ago I looked at the federal figures. If you add up the various federal user fees for highways and add the federal fuel tax, it more than covers the federal spending on roads. (for most years individually, and for any 8 year average.)
The way they get to the 50% recovery figure is by raiding the road fuel tax revenue (which is undeniably a De facto usage fee) for use in other transportation subsidies.
And here is the key figure from one BTS report:
I believe I've seen that report, or at least an earlier version of it. The difference is the same as it is with most cost reports, that being a question of which costs and revenues are included and how those costs are allocated. The bulk of the work I did was with FHWA's Highway Statistics series (available online) going back over several decades. This data set tends to offer a more comprehensive look at costs and revenues, and is the base data from which highway policy and legislation is developed.
The larger problem has been the overspending of the Highway Trust Fund for several decades, even prior to the establishment of the Mass Transit Account, to the extent that Mass Transit Account funding, even if it were all redirected, would have only a minimal effect. The analysis mentioned also included funding from state, local and "other" sources, including some private sector funding, funding from non-transportation governmental agencies and a few other sources I don't recall. Transfers from the General Fund accounts to the Trust Fund were accounted separately.
FWIW, there is an ongoing discussion of Federal transportation policy at the National Journal's transportation webpage. I've followed this one regularly for several years now, and it makes for very informative reading.
Do you know if that $90,000 figure is actual salary, or salary-plus-benefits? There's a huge difference between the two.
Never mind. It's pay-plus-benefits. (I finally thought to read the article.)
The government doesn't fund airports except through the airport "trust" fund which is funded by ticket taxes on passengers. The trust fund collects more money than is spent each year so naturally Congress finds many other ways to borrow it and piss it away on other spending. It had enough money to fund the TSA muggers but of course that would have choked off a free source of money so they just added another ticket tax.
Is the Federal highway program "recovering" $0.50 of every dollar it spends? Something is wrong with that statement and it is also exactly what is wrong with subsidizing Amtrak. That is 100% of the money for the federal highway program is paid by those who use the federal highway. Whereas a substantial portion of the Amtrak funding comes from the general fund where most of those who have paid taxes into it are not Amtrak users. If you really want to see an excessive waste of federal funds on transportation then look into high speed rail. It may set new records on wasteful federal spending and that isn't an easy task.
The dining car is a VERY expensive proposition on a train.
People forget: in the beginning the dining car was a PERK reserved for First Class Ticket holders only. The hoi polloi was held back into the front cars ( nearest the smoking steam engine ) by the Conductor and his subordinates. Further, they were most typically found on EXPRESS trains like the 20th Century Limited, etc. -- which were, like the later SST, priced entirely at First Class Rates. Hence, for such runs, the dining car became a 'universal' access perk.
What we have today are trains that are priced at Coach and Business Class that require First Class revenue to pencil out.
And First Class service is seriously more expensive than the hoi polloi imagines.
Hence, Congress has stepped in to cover the gap, so that America can maintain a European level of railroading -- at least out East.
The other ruination of railroad efficiency is the uniqueness of these legacy runs. Other than this or that express of renoun, the crews have nothing else to do. This bears emphasis: once the passenger train passes through -- there are no others to attend to -- what so ever.
THIS is where the money goes!
It's IMPOSSIBLE for any management to spread their functions over enough volume to recoup their basic living expenses.
Freight trains don't need porters, conductors, cooks, nor janitors.
Ultimately, the railroads need to get out of the fake passenger hauling trade entirely.
Even maintaining bare bones train stop assets is wildly uneconomic.
This carries over to rolling stock: even Canada runs ancient coach cars.
It's a matter of seat-miles per hour that cripples rail vs jet aircraft. Here the advantage is 30:1 in favor of jets -- if not more.
I rode the Empire Builder across the northern tier 30 years ago. Price seemed reasonable at the time, though meals did seem a bit pricy (I don't recall how much it cost). It was 24 hours one-way (same back, too). Wouldn't do it again.
My daughter went to Niagara Falls by train on her honeymoon. Loved it. Most travel, she flies.