Passenger rail enthusiasts like to point to the shabby service and equipment on Amtrak in order to lobby for more government investment in passenger rail. In the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, they got their wish, as the legislation allocates $66 Billion to help Amtrak improve and expand service.
Needless to say, the legislation thrilled advocates for Amtrak: For instance, Jim Mathews, President of the Rail Passengers Association, told the Washington Postthat the bill represents a first step towards moving this country towards a robust national rail network.
While it goes without saying that this won’t be the last time that taxpayer money goes towards efforts to expand Amtrak’s reach, the simple reality is that nearly all of this money will ultimately be wasted: Long-distance intercity passenger rail should not exist in this country.
First and foremost, this country is too big for passenger rail to be cost-effective in most places, except for connecting dense cities that are a relatively short distance apart. For instance, a trip from New York to Washington D.C., a little more than 200 miles, takes just a few minutes longer via train than a plane trip, taking into account travel to and from the airport and train stations, and is usually less expensive.
However, a trip from New York to Phoenix—the sort of trip Mathews praises in his interview as worthy of more investment—takes three and a half days by train and five hours by plane, and each trip costs roughly the same. The idea that Americans are flocking to spend more time traveling because it’s a train is nonsensical.
Europeans have a successful passenger rail system, as our passenger rail enthusiasts never tire of observing, but that continent is much smaller than the US, the population more dense, and few people in Europe take long train trips either. Europeans choose to fly when it’s much faster than rail, and that holds for most trips more than 400 miles. Romanticism aside, Europeans don’t have the time to do three day rail trips either.
Europe’s approach to trains is markedly different from ours in that they transport most of their goods on highways and their passenger trains travel on dedicated rail. In the U.S., Amtrak travels on tracks that primarily transport freight. Passenger rail enthusiasts often complain that freight trains “get in the way” of passenger trains, and that it slows Amtrak service, but the reality is that Amtrak trains receive priority over freight trains and travel much faster than freight trains. As a result, passenger trains cause a traffic-management nightmare for dispatchers, who must weave them in and out of freight trains, which invariably entails freight trains needing to pull over into a siding to let an Amtrak train pass.
The network effects of a single Amtrak train on a crowded rail network can be devastating: A carefully scheduled freight train system can see its entire network slowed, with repercussions lasting for days.
Passenger rail enthusiasts respond that we should simply build more tracks, but sidings and new tracks are wildly expensive, and $66 billion doesn’t go terribly far in this realm. For instance, the Los Angeles to San Francisco passenger rail system currently under construction is forecast to cost over $100 billion when completed.
Expecting freight railroads to invest more to help Amtrak wouldn’t make sense either: there’s little in it for them in accommodating more passenger rail on their tracks, and there’s little reason to think that moderate improvements in the time it takes to travel via train between two distant cities will budge demand at all. People who travel on a train for days when they could travel the same route for the same price via plane are hobbyists.
Mathews also suggests that we encourage railroads to run smaller freight trains, which would allow them to more quickly pull over into smaller sidings and get out of Amtrak’s way. But this too would impose sizable costs onto freight rail companies. Freight rail, like passenger rail, is a volume business, and longer trains allow railroads to carry more freight in their network, which boosts profits. In effect, mandating shorter trains would constitute an implicit tax on rail profits.
Mathews told the Post that he hopes that the increase in Amtrak funding will result in a 7-fold increase in train service for the largest 30 or 40 cities, and an expansion of service from the 500 or so cities that currently have service to 675 cities.
Our nation’s roads and our airports are essentially paid by user fees, collected via taxes on gasoline, diesel, airplane fuel, and fees and taxes imposed on airline tickets. Virtually everyone in the U.S. lives a short car ride away from a commercial airport that can take them anywhere they want to go.
But Amtrak depends on government largess and the forced participation of the freight rail industry to offer its services beyond the Northeast Corridor. If it uses its infusion of taxpayer dollars to expand its unwanted services to more cities it would be worth asking precisely who would benefit from doing so, beyond a few hobbyist rail riders and Amtrak.
This article originally appeared on Forbes