The first trip I took on Amtrak was so bad, I swore they couldn’t pay me to take another trip.
When fiscal hawks in Congress started looking at slashing Amtrak’s subsidies to help reduce the deficit I couldn’t disagree. This was in the late 1980s. Last century, as the younger generation likes to say.
A few years ago, I needed to travel to California, and Amtrak’s California Zephyr out of Grand Junction seemed the best choice, even with all my misgivings about Amtrak. I was surprised by the difference. It ran on time, it was considerably cleaner, the car attendant was outstanding, and it was far more economical than if I had driven one of our vehicles. The time difference between driving versus taking the train was about six hours. All things considered, it was a good decision
Since then, I have caught the Zephyr out of Grand Junction five times. With the exception of the moronic narcissist rafters on the Colorado River in Ruby Canyon, who feel compelled to moon the Amtrak trains, every trip has been a pleasure. I have met interesting people, the trains have run on time, and I get to see a different perspective on our Western lands than what the highway gives. The food is better than your average highway pit stops. The bathroom facilities still need improvement, but a Ziploc bag of Lysol wipes helps.
I generally am not a fan of government subsidizing large segments of the economy, as the needs always seem to increase, and there never seems like there is any real oversight of most programs. They just keep expanding. The last Farm Bill and the Education Bureaucracy would be good examples of government spending running amok. I think Amtrak might become a model of a subsidized program exiting the nanny state in the near future.
In 2017, Amtrak hired Richard Anderson as their new CEO. Anderson has a three-year contract where he is not paid a salary, but is eligible for an annual bonus of up to $500,000. The Board of Directors determine the terms of his bonus. Anderson, who came from turning around Delta Airlines, has a documented history of aversion to subsidies for transportation industries. Be still, my racing heart! Since Amtrak’s inception in 1970, it has never turned a profit. Government subsidies since then have totaled 46 billion dollars. Amtrak’s primary revenue source is ticket sales, but it does pick up some money through cargo and delivery service. A Fiscal Year 2016 review shows that Amtrak operates 300 trains, transported 31.3 million passengers, which average out to about 85,700 people a day. The Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington D.C. accounts for 37 percent of its riders, and 38 percent of its revenue. It is the only Amtrak route that turns a profit. The primary reason being that Amtrak beats drive time by an hour on that particular route.
In Fiscal year 2018, Amtrak’s yearly loss was $144.9 million, which was a decline of 28.5 million over FY2017. President Trump’s 2018 Budget would cut Amtrak’s 1.495 billion dollar subsidy down to 738 million, so as to free up money for his proposed border wall. I am unconvinced that robbing Peter to pay for Paul is a good idea. President Trump is suggesting that the individual states should pick up the tab for the portion of Amtrak routes that run between their borders. Using that logic, shouldn’t individual States be responsible for a Border fence? The outlook for Amtrak is improving, and at this point in time, I think it is in the national interest to keep it moving forward.
If you have never taken a trip on Amtrak, try it when you have the time. The California Zephyr from Denver to Green River, Utah in the autumn colors is a national treasure. If the train is running on time, Ruby Canyon is spectacular at sunset.
Valerie Maez writes from Lewis, Colo.