Amtrak Is a Tax-Sucking Behemoth That Deserves to Die: Jim Epstein in The Daily Beast


I have a new story up at The Daily Beast on Amtrak and it's alleged resurgence. Here's how it opens:

"We'll take you across the mighty Mississippi through eight states—past wheat fields and ranches, missions and pueblos, mountains and deserts," reads the promotional copy for Amtrak's Southwest Chief, a sleeper train that weaves 2,256 miles from Los Angeles to Chicago along portions of the old Sante Fe trail. "You'll see spectacular landscapes and pristine vistas not visible from interstate highways." While gazing out at scenery worthy of the best John Ford flicks, riders can chow down on offerings from Amtrak's full-service kitchen, such as the angus steak burger for $9.75, a $16 Vegetarian Gemelli Pasta, or the wild caught Mahi-Mahi for $23.25.

|||Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty

This "journey of elevations," as Amtrak describes it, may be a bliss-out for passengers, but should taxpayers be forced to underwrite the ride? In 2011, the Southwest Chief ran a $66.5 million deficit, meaning the federal government had to kick in $185 for every passenger on board. And to keep the Southwest Chief running, Amtrak is now seeking additional state aid of $120 million over the next decade.

As any popcorn-stand profiteer posing as a movie house operator can attest, captive eaters create golden opportunities to supersize profits. But on the Southwest Chief—and Amtrak trains in general—food and beverages are a financial drain. Last week, the inspector general revealed at a congressional hearing that Amtrak lost $609 million on its meal services over the past six years, citing all kinds of eye-popping details about giveaways to staff, spoiled food, and service workers earning about four times the standard industry wage. Defenders of Amtrak argue that the report was just a headline-grabbing jab that distracts from the larger story of the organization's resurgence.

Read the whole thing.