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Perpetually Indebted Amtrak Wants to Offer Free Rides

March 14, 2014 J

By Akash Chougule

The multiple folds of irony are all most too much to handle. The nation’s government-run passenger rail service – which has never once in more than four decades turned a profit and relies on perpetual taxpayer handouts – plans to start offering free rides to writers. The idea, which stemmed from a New York-based writer’s tweet, will launch an official residency program for writers on its long-distance routes, coincidentally the least cost-efficient and most heavily subsidized in the Amtrak system.  Amtrak is a perpetual loser, and it’s unlikely that this writers-ride-free gimmick will have a happy ending.

Perhaps no government program has embodied bureaucratic waste and inefficiency quite like passenger rail travel in the United States – a taxpayer-funded gravy train that has received $40 billion in federal subsidies, has never once made it out of the red, and entered last year well over a billion dollars in debt.  Worse, the service asked for another $2.6 billion in federal funding for fiscal year 2014, and yet has the audacity to offer “free” rides to writers.

“I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” A simple tweet at the agency’s social media account is all it took for the service to offer the writer a free trip from New York to Chicago and back. According to CNN, up to 24 writers will be chosen, and all will be offered trips on “undersold long-distance routes.” The Northeast Corridor is only profitable portion of Amtrak in the entire country – leaving many options for the writers in which to get the creative juices flowing.

The service has resorted to offering free tickets, a bed, desk, outlets, “and a window to watch the American countryside roll by” to a lucky few, perhaps hoping to drum up a little positive copy for the increasingly unpopular and expensive rail service. Each writers package has an estimated at a retail value of about $900 – not exactly chump change. Needless to say, the prospect for return on investment is slim – and that shouldn’t be a surprise to most taxpayers.  After all, this is an agency that managed to lose $834 million on food sales alone in the past decade.

Thankfully, some in Congress have taken notice. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) penned an open later to Amtrak President Joseph Boardman, questioning the logic behind the move.

“We are certain that there is considerable demand for free Amtrak tickets in any number of venues,” the lawmakers wrote. “Unfortunately, given Amtrak’s prodigious annual taxpayer subsidies, this plan raises multiple red flags…revenue from ticket sales was insufficient to even cover Amtrak’s operating expenses.” Hoping for return on investment on thousands of dollars-worth of free trips to help bridge this gap seems like a dubious plan, to say the least.

Amtrak offering free rides, with no metric by which to judge the success of the program, embodies perfectly the systemic problems with this government-run railroad.

Taxpayer-funded projects like Amtrak have no profit motive, no inclination to increase efficiency, and every incentive to continue shoveling taxpayer money into the proverbial firebox.  That’s because for more than 40 years, Amtrak’s funding has been all but guaranteed regardless of performance.

Instead of expanding taxpayer subsidies and driving Amtrak even further off the rails of solvency, policymakers should be looking for ways to put a stop to what has become “Handout Express,” to the tune of $15 billion a year.

Not only should Amtrak begin to live up to its promise of getting back on stable financial footing by cancelling the free ride program, Congress should consider not re-authorizing the service at all – ending Amtrak’s free ride at our expense.

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