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Where's the Social Benefit from Subsidized Amtrak Expansion?

September 29, 2021.


Joe Biden loves Amtrak passenger rail, and the $66 billion allotted for its expansion in the infrastructure bill proves it. The justification for such a boondoggle includes classic greenwashing: by luring travelers out of their dirty cars, Amtrak rail service will ease traffic congestion and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).


In fact, it will do neither. It will have little effect on traffic congestion because intercity rail service competes with lengthy trips by car, not local traffic. And contrary to Amtrak's propaganda, its trains do not run cleaner than cars.


To back up its claim that intercity rail emits much less CO2 than cars, Amtrak recently published this example of a trip from Chicago to Detroit:


CO2 Car vs Train Amtrak's estimate


According to the figure, a car's CO2 emissions per person is 123% greater than a train's. This number is an artifact of clever deception. Here's why.


1. Load Factor Cheating. The estimate of a train's emissions assumes that 52% of the seats are occupied, which is Amtrak's average "load factor." But Amtrak's estimate of the car's emissions is based on single occupancy, which is NOT the average load factor for a car. In fact, the average car on a long distance journey is occupied by 2.2 passengers. When we use this number, the car's emissions drops to 40.9 per passenger, about the same as the train.


2. Distance Cheating. Amtrak's estimates assume that car and train would travel exactly the same distance, 267 miles. But studies of transit networks find that travel by rail is more circuitous than by car. (I-94 to Detroit is straighter than the meandering railway). In the case of intercity travel, the average passenger rail route is 41% longer than the shortest distance by car. Since emissions are proportional to the distance traveled, 41% more miles boosts the train's CO2 emissions to 56.5 kgCO2/P. And this does not adjust for the "last mile" problem that plagues passenger rail; i.e., once passengers disembark at the train station, they need additional transportation to get to their final destination. So, a more honest assessment of GHG per person is this:


GHGs Car/Train Author's est.


3. For the purpose of justifying railway expansion, figure 4 is irrelevant anyway. By the time the new routes are completed in 2035, electrification, not petrol, will be the transportation norm. The planned electrification of Amtrak will not make rail cleaner than auto. One obvious reason is that most cars will also be electrified by then. More importantly, life-cycle analysis shows that the massive release of GHGs during the construction of new railway infrastructure can never be repaid by lower operational emissions. Amtrak's average load factor is unlikely to increase enough to offset its GHG debt, unless of course it is more grandly subsidized than is currently the case.


Regressive subsidies are Amtrak's indispensable life-support.


Contrary to the chatter of Biden and Buttigieg, passenger rail is not a vital investment in America's future. Right now it accounts for a miniscule 0.1% of all passenger travel in the US. Even if Amtrak expansion doubles that number, it will have no perceptible impact on the nation's level of GHG emissions or economic performance.


In fact, Amtrak's is barely maintaining its 0.1% share because, since 2010, more people are choosing to travel by air and car. The problem is the exorbitant cost of rail travel. If Amtrak passengers had to cover the full cost of a 200 mile trip, the average ticket price would be $132. Such sticker-shock would sink Amtrak's occupancy rate from 52% to 17%. So to keep it at 52%, Amtrak only charges $67, and taxpayers make up the difference by providing each passenger with a $65 subsidy. By the way, in a car with two occupants the same unsubsidized trip would cost about $30 per passenger.


According to profiles of its passengers, Amtrak is essentially a purveyor of subsidized chauffeur service for tourists and the well-to-do. On Amtrak's northeast corridor, which accounts for 38% of total ridership, 50% of passengers made more than $100,000 in 2016. Only 24% of US households made more than that. In the California, Illinois and Wisconsin markets, which account for another 20% of ridership, 38% make more than $100K. It's worth noting that as a Senator from Delaware, Joe Biden earned $174,000/year and also raked-in about $533,000 in taxpayer subsidies from his 8,200 Amtrak trips between DC and Delaware.

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