Back at the beginning of May, an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, resulting in eight deaths and 200 injuries.
Some commentators took the incident as an indication that Amtrak needed a significant investment, especially for things like Positive Train Control, which may have been able to prevent the accident.
Buty afterwords Reason, the premier libertarian magazine, published two articles attacking Amtrak. Veronique de Rugy’s Amtrak Has Problems, But A Lack of Federal Funding Is Not One Of Them and Jim Epstein’s Self-Driving Cars Are Coming Fast, So Why Should We Spend A Dime Rebuilding Amtrak? are, on the surface, the kind of articles one expects libertarians to write about a government owned and operated passenger rail service.
De Rugy summarizes the history of Amtrak’s decisions based on politics, which have resulted in it spending millions of dollars running all but empty trains on some routes, or its failure to properly plan and execute projects and contracts, wasting millions of dollars more.
Epstein starts out strong, questioning the logic of spending $2 billion a year on Amtrak and then arguing that self-driving cars will eventually out-compete public transit, writing “I doubt there will be many train riders in 2040. American travelers generally prefer cars because they offer point-to-point mobility, but trains have two advantages over passenger vehicles today: They don’t get stuck in traffic, and riders can do other things during the trip.”
And yet, in 2013 the federal government spent $43 billion on the nation’s highways, while state and local governments combined to spend another $110 billion. Moreover, while people like Randall O’Toole claim that the Highway Trust Fund is fully funded from the gas tax, that is not true. Congress has to make up the difference each year.
The fact is, the American road network is a trillion-dollar subsidy for driving, exacerbated by generous tax breaks to suburban homeowners, generous subsidies and low-interest loans to sprawl-builders and those interested in buying a home, all exacerbated by the most egregious violation of private property rights ever devised, namely zoning.
I doubt that even self-driving cars could compete with transit options were the nation’s infrastructure and policy not bent over backwards for the benefit of motorists, taxpayers be damned.