Chugging along to the show’s close, anchor Dan Harris ended the January 7 “World News Sunday” by introducing correspondent Bill Redeker’s wistful story of how first-class travel on the nation’s railways might “become a thing of the past,” thanks to federal budget cuts.
Yet Redeker left Amtrak’s critics at the station, ignoring its massive costs to taxpayers who aren’t even riding the trains.
Splicing his report with dining car scenes from “Silver Streak” and “North by Northwest,” Redeker complained that Amtrak had to skimp on china, stemware and tablecloths to meet budget cutbacks on its California Zephyr rail line.
“It’s not that Amtrak officials wanted to make the cuts; they had no choice,” Redeker complained. “Congress threatened to pull more than $1 million in subsidies unless labor and food costs were reduced,” he said, adding that “the dining car was losing far more than it was taking in.”
Of course while private industry faced with such losses must either adapt or die in such a circumstance, Redeker found Amtrak’s woes worthy of taxpayer sympathy.
At no point in his story did Redeker note that Congress spends more than $1 billion a year on Amtrak – usually far more than what the president requests in the annual budget.
But as Heritage Foundation transportation policy expert Ronald Utt  told the Business & Media Institute, for all of the proposed cuts, Amtrak is still heavily subsidized by the taxpayer, costs significantly more than air travel, and has heavy labor costs.
Utt characterized Amtrak’s subsidies as “over the top,” pointing out that taxpayers foot on average $400 for each passenger aboard the Sunset Limited rail line servicing California, while other popular rail services get subsidies averaging “hundreds per passenger.” Since long-distance rail is significantly slower and less convenient than an airline flight, Utt added, taxpayers are essentially paying for someone’s vacation when it comes to most long-distance train trips.
What’s more, Amtrak employees are well-compensated, adding to the high ticket cost and taxpayer expense. For example, “Snack car operators earn over $50,000 a year plus tips, and this is one of the least-skilled professions” in the passenger train company, noted Utt, who worked in the Reagan administration on efforts to privatize some Amtrak rail lines. Put into perspective, that’s nearly $7,000 more than the median salary for a flight attendant, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics .
On a recent train trip, Utt said, he noticed three Amtrak attendants staffing the luggage carousel in Chicago, though few passengers actually checked their luggage in the baggage car.
“There’s just a lot of feather-bedding in the system,” concluded the former Chamber of Commerce economist, who added that profitable private train lines in Canada and the United States prove that the market can and will private alternatives for rail enthusiasts who wish to take a scenic trip by rail.
Although ABC’s Redeker reminded an Amtrak official that his company was “in the red $120 million,” he failed to showcase any critics of the rail service as he complained that luxury service lines like the Empire Builder “will continue to be the exception, not the rule.”
Redeker concluded his story bemoaning “an additional $11 million in cuts next year,” before turning to two passengers who agreed that the cutbacks were “sad.”