Happening Now

Why Do Myths Persist?

February 6, 2019

Asking If A Route Is Profitable Misses The Point

Jim Mathews

Pepsi and Coke. Night and day. Good and Evil. All of baseball and the Yankees. Humans love binary choices. Science has proved time and again that our brains start subconsciously eliminating other considerations until we get to a simple yes or no option. And yet, science has also proved that this often leads us to make bad choices.

That’s where we are in the false “debate” that continues over passenger rail in this country. Whether we're talking about Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC) versus the National Network of long-distance trains, or passenger trains versus airliners, we're presented with a false choice, and it leads to bad policy. That's because the argument animating this idea never seems to go away: taxpayers should support the “profitable” travel modes and cut the “failing” travel modes.

That argument is an example of an unnecessary binary. We wind up in these kinds of debates because most of us have the very human tendency to oversimplify complex problems, as a way of coping with a world that is growing ever more complex every day. Reality is always more complicated than binaries.

Asking whether a particular route makes money misses the point. It’s not about whether a route makes money, it’s about who makes money from a particular route. Trains make money by acting as economic engines in the communities they serve. Normal, Ill., Meridian, Miss., Denver, Colo., and many other communities large and small have seen returns on their rail investment many times over – in jobs, in new retail, in mobility, in tourism and in real-estate development. That’s where the “profit” goes: to the communities served and often to the tune of billions of dollars, even though it’s not necessarily to Amtrak as the operator. Just ask the communities that nearly lost service to bustitution on the route of the Southwest Chief.

And that’s okay. We taxpayers support Amtrak in part because we want these towns to thrive and their citizens to have access to jobs and mobility. We all need the economy to grow and be strong. We all have an interest in preventing towns in America’s heartland from decaying and drying up – because paying for the consequences is often much more expensive than just paying to keep them linked to the rest of the country. If we have the foresight to invest in middle America, the whole nation would reap the benefits.

The National Network does for rural America what the so-called “Acela Corridor” does for the East Coast. Few passengers take the Acela from Washington, DC, to Boston; instead, many, many more ride between DC and New York, or Philadelphia and NY, or New York and Boston. Long-distance trains do the exact same thing. The Empire Builder doesn’t exist solely to take people from Seattle to Chicago. Overwhelmingly, passengers ride between intermediate stations. Even more important, for some rural, elderly and disabled passengers it’s the only plausible or affordable choice.

Let’s consider Fargo to Minneapolis, a $37 Amtrak coach fare compared with a $403 flight. Or how about Cut Bank, Montana, to Spokane? Yes, it’s a three-hour flight versus an eight-hour train ride, but that doesn’t include the 88-mile drive from Cut Bank to Glacier’s airport. And the fares are not even close: $64 for Amtrak, $252 to drive and then fly. And that’s assuming Grandma can even drive in the snowy dark winter.

These kinds of trips are why we have a National Network, for the same reason we have a Northeast Corridor. Part of Amtrak's congressionally chartered mission is to help connect America. And that means connecting ALL of America.